A team of German lawyers said on Thursday they had found no evidence that a former Archbishop of Cologne had breached his duty in his handling of sexual abuse cases over decades, but they criticised and named several other senior church officials.
In an 800-page report into the handling of abuse cases in the archdiocese of Cologne between 1975 and 2018, criminal lawyer Bjoern Gercke said he had found more than 200 abusers and more than 300 victims, mostly boys under the age of 14.
Among those named in the report as having breached their duty to deal with reports of abuse were the Archbishop of Hamburg Stefan Hesse and Joachim Meisner, who died in 2017 and was Rainer Maria Woelki's predecessor as archbishop of Cologne. Archbishop Hesse did not immediately comment on the report.
‘Years of chaos’
"There were years of chaos, a perceived lack of competence and misunderstanding," said Kerstin Stirner, one of Mr Gercke's legal team.
Cardinal Woelki commissioned the report after refusing to allow the publication of the findings of a first investigation which he said was flawed and not legally sound – a decision that drew much criticism from victims.
In an initial response to the report, Cardinal Woelki suspended two church officials, the diocese said. They were named as Auxiliary Bishop Dominikus Schwaderlapp and church official Guenter Assenmacher.
Neither commented immediately on the decision.
Abuse victims said the report was too narrow in scope and came too late as many of those responsible were already dead.
"The church's filibustering tactics over 10-11 years have worked," said Matthias Katsch of the Eckiger Tisch victim group.
“It is important that we finally move away from expert opinions, from lawyers’ views, to a real coming to terms with the situation,” he added.
Cardinal Woelki, who will next week decide on further personnel consequences, said that he would examine the report and that he had been struck that perpetrators who were priests appeared to have been treated more leniently than lay people.
“This is a first step,” he told reporters. “To uncover what happened and what is happening, to clear up any cover-up and to name those responsible.”
Bishops have warned that the row in Cologne was damaging the Catholic Church across Germany. Cologne, with its landmark Gothic cathedral, has the largest membership of any diocese in the German-speaking world, but for months it has been difficult for members to get appointments to formally leave the church.
Justice minister Christine Lambrecht said child abuse was not just a church matter but had to be dealt with by courts. "Power structures without any control have enabled abuse and cover-ups for decades," she said. – Reuters