Woelki's clean slate

Woelki's clean slate

Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki © Harald Oppitz (KNA)

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki is accused of having been involved in covering up abuses. However, expert Gercke comes to a different conclusion – apparently just like the Vatican and the first expert opinion.

Clarification announced, expert opinion withdrawn, second expert opinion presented: The Archdiocese of Cologne has taken a lot of criticism for the back-and-forth in its abuse processing in recent months. There was talk of catastrophic communication. Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki has been called upon to resign in many cases.

The clumsy crisis management aside – whether Woelki himself covered up cases of abuse has so far remained an open question.

An expert opinion by the criminal lawyer Bjorn Gercke, which was presented in Cologne on Thursday, now comes to the conclusion that the archbishop has nothing to reproach himself for in this case. The investigation lists, among other things, a case that critics blame on Woelki – the case of priest O, a friend of his. From Dusseldorf, who died in 2017.

Woelki has nothing to reproach himself for

The investigation, which also includes statements by Woelki and other church officials, presents the case as follows: O. allegedly sexually abused a boy of kindergarten age in the 1970s. In 2010, the person concerned reported for the first time to the archdiocese, in 2011 he elaborated on the allegations.

The then head of personnel and now Archbishop of Hamburg Stefan Hebe (54) then invited the person concerned for a talk. For health reasons and because he lived far away, the person concerned had refused this offer. In recognition of the suffering, however, he received 15.000 euros by the Central Coordination Office of the German Bishops' Conference – three times the standard rate at that time. What speaks for the fact that one considered the descriptions credible.

According to the report, personnel director Hebe telephoned Woelki in June 2011 about the matter. He was auxiliary bishop at the time and responsible for the northern region, where O. was active. In addition, Woelki and O. friends for a long time. As Woelki put it on the record, Hebe asked him whether he could imagine O. had committed an abuse.

He had denied this in principle, Woelki said. Hebe, however, had said nothing about the concrete accusations and had also evaded his inquiries. Woelki was "later very annoyed" about this, the report continues. Hebe had only inquired about the state of health of O. inquired, which Woelki assessed as badly. O. Had had a stroke and was suffering from depression.

Two breaches of duty by Cardinal Meisner

A preliminary investigation under canon law was omitted and the case was not reported to the Vatican – two breaches of duty that the experts blame on Archbishop Joachim Meisner (1933-2017), who was responsible at the time. He should have initiated a preliminary investigation, completely independent of Woelki's assessments of O's health. All "hierarchically subordinate participants," such as personnel manager Hebe, would have had to comply with the decision of their archbishop.

The case also should have been reported to the prosecutor's office, legal experts say. Here the legal advisor of the archdiocese would have been responsible, who presumably knew nothing about the events.

Woelki then became archbishop of Cologne in September 2014. A few months later, he had a list of priests suspected of abuse drawn up. When he noted that among them was also pastor O. Was, he had the file come and learned of the specific allegations against his friend. Now the cardinal should have launched a preliminary canonical investigation and reported the case to Rome, critics say. Both failed again.

Here the experts now support an argument that the archbishopric had already brought into the field before: Because of a second stroke, O. In 2015, a "most serious case of care" had been. According to Woelki, he was bedridden and no longer fit for interrogation. Criminal proceedings against O. could no longer have been carried out.

Woelki has not violated his duty of disclosure

In the opinion of some canon lawyers, Woelki would nevertheless have been obliged to report the case to Rome. Expert Gercke, on the other hand, agreed with the opinion that according to the legal situation at the time – unlike today – this was not mandatory. The archbishop had therefore not violated his duty of disclosure.

Even the Vatican and the Munich law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl (WSW), which was first commissioned with an expert opinion, would not have judged Woelki's actions in this case as a breach of duty, Gercke added, and thus talked out of the closet. For this first investigation, withheld by the archdiocese because of "methodological deficiencies", those affected and journalists are to be able to see only at the end of next week, in order to be able to compare the results.

If one follows these remarks, Woelki's vest is white – casually formulated. However, it may take some time before he gains new trust among those affected and among the people of the church. The lay initiative "We are Church" showed on Thursday, despite everything, shocked by the "disturbing sense of injustice among those responsible for the leadership of the largest German diocese". The cardinal must offer his resignation, was still the demand.

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Christina Cherry
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