In a decision that has been met with sharp criticism from lay Catholics, abuse victims’ associations and the secular press, Pope Francis has refused to accept Archbishop Stefan Hesse’s resignation, and reinstated him as Archbishop of Hamburg.
Archbishop Hesse of Hamburg offered to resign for his mishandling of 11 cases of clerical sexual abuse while he was personnel manager and vicar general of Cologne (2003-2014). The Pope’s decision to reinstate him as Archbishop of Hamburg was announced by the German nunciature on 15 September. Francis granted Hesse leave of absence at the end of March leaving Hamburg without an archbishop for almost six months although canon law prescribes a three-month deadline for the acceptance or not of an offer of resignation.
He was glad that a “period of uncertainty” for the archdiocese of Hamburg had ended, bishops’ conference president Bishop Georg Bätzing said. He appealed to all those who were “possibly irritated” to trust the Pope’s decision, which was “well founded and well considered”, he said. Conference vice-president Bishop Franz-Josef Bode added that he was glad the Pope had reached a decision.
But Francis’ decision to refuse to accept Hesse’s offer to resign and to reinstate him as archbishop has been met with almost exclusively negative reactions from the Catholic laity, victims’ associations, theologians and the secular press. In Germany and abroad the criticism has been scathing.
“The Pope has decided not to accept Archbishop Hesse’s offer to resign. The reasoning [behind the Pope’s decision] is a problem”, the vice president of the 18 million-strong Central Committee of lay Catholics in Germany (ZdK), Karin Kortmann, explained in a press statement on 15 September. Francis had argued that it was possible to reinstate Hesse was because he had not acted “deliberately”. “When wrong decisions fail to have personal consequences, that is a slap in the face for the victims”, Kortmann pointed out.
According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Pope’s decision would increase mistrust both in the German Church and the Church outside Germany. “Even if the Vatican fervently continues to promise that it will continue to clear up this shame … the suspicion regularly arises whether it does really, seriously mean this - and this is such a moment,” the paper wrote.
The Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung was deeply critical. The Pope’s justification for reinstating Hesse – that he had not covered up abuse “deliberately” – was both “bizarre” and “crazy”, the commentary said.