BERLIN — Pope Francis is sending envoys to the German archdiocese of Cologne to investigate possible mistakes by senior church officials in handling past sexual abuse cases and the “complex pastoral situation” in the deeply divided church there.
The papal nuncio’s office in Berlin said Friday that Francis ordered an “apostolic visitation” and will send Cardinal Anders Arborelius and Johannes van den Hende, the bishops of Stockholm and Rotterdam respectively, to Cologne in the first half of June.
It said that the two envoys will work to get a “comprehensive picture of the complex pastoral situation in the archdiocese” and investigate “possible errors” on the part of Cologne’s archbishop, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, two auxiliary bishops and Hamburg Archbishop Stefan Hesse in dealing with cases of sexual abuse by clergy and others.
A report issued in March found 75 cases in which eight high-ranking officials — including Woelki’s late predecessor — neglected their duties to either follow up on, report or sanction cases of alleged abuse by clergy and lay church employees, and failed to take care of the victims.
Hesse, previously a senior church official in Cologne, was faulted for 11 cases of neglecting his duty. He offered his resignation to Francis, who granted him a “time out” of unspecified length.
Three Cologne church officials, including the two auxiliary bishops, were suspended.
The report absolved Woelki himself of any neglect of his legal duty with respect to abuse victims. He subsequently said he made mistakes in past cases involving sexual abuse allegations, but made clear he has no intention of resigning.
Woelki has infuriated many local Catholics over recent months by citing legal concerns to keep under wraps a first report on how local church officials reacted when priests were accused of sexual abuse. He commissioned the new report — an 800-page investigation based on church files and put together by a German law firm.
A local court had to raise the number of appointments available to people seeking formally to leave the church.
Woelki said in a statement that he had informed Francis “comprehensively” in February about the situation in Cologne, and welcomed the fact that “the pope wants to get his own picture of the independent investigation and the consequences of it.”
He pledged to support the work of Arborelius and Van den Hende.
Hesse has conceded that he made “mistakes” in the past but insisted that he “never participated in cover-ups.” He has said he is “prepared to carry my part of the responsibility for the failure of the system.”
Revelations about past sexual abuse have dogged the church in Germany and elsewhere for years.
In 2018, a church-commissioned report concluded that at least 3,677 people were abused by clergy in Germany between 1946 and 2014. More than half of the victims were 13 or younger when the abuse took place, and nearly a third of them were altar boys.
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