German Catholic charity admits ‘massive deficits’ in founder’s behaviour

Woman alleged late priest Werenfried van Straaten attempted to rape her in 1973

A closed St Peter’s Square due the Covid-19 measures. Photograph: Franco Origlia/Getty

A closed St Peter’s Square due the Covid-19 measures. Photograph: Franco Origlia/Getty

 

One of Germany’s leading Catholic charities is scrambling to salvage its reputation after leaked documents suggest its late founder was an alleged rapist with an alcohol problem.

Dutch-born priest Werenfried van Straaten became an international celebrity in the years after 1945 for organising deliveries of food and other supplies to destitute Germans.

Fr van Straaten, a member of the Norbertine order and based in Belgium, earned the nickname “Bacon Priest” for his appeals to Flemish farmers to feed some of the 14 million displaced Germans battling hunger and bitter winters in the postwar years.

His pastoral work took an unusual approach, sending priests throughout the German countryside with mobile chapels in cars and carts.

By the mid-1950s the priest’s campaign had expanded: his assistance for displaced people to build new homes put him on the cover of Der Spiegel news weekly.

Fr van Straaten’s organisation went on to become the charity Aid to the Church in Need, with 17 offices and about 140 projects around the world, financed by annual donations in 2019 of €111 million.

Until his death in 2003 he was a regular visitor to the Vatican and a recipient of numerous honours. Critics describe Aid to the Church in Need, which has a worldwide network of 600,000 friends and donors, as part of an influential conservative network within the Catholic Church.

Woman’s allegations

In 2010, when efforts to have Fr van Straaten canonised began to gather momentum, an unnamed woman contacted the charity to say the priest attempted to rape her. The alleged attack took place during a trip in 1973, when she was 20.

Her allegations were reported to Rome, prompting Pope Benedict XVI to order a high-level secret investigation by Bishop Manfred Grothe of Paderborn in central Germany.

His official report, forwarded to the Holy See in 2011 and now leaked to German newspaper Christ & Welt, accused the dead priest of “excess in lifestyle and considerable deficits in personnel management as well as susceptibility to fascist ideas”.

The investigator said the claims by the woman were credible. In a letter acknowledging receipt of the report, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, the prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, said the findings would remain secret. Plans to canonise the priest were quietly shelved.

At the same time in public, Pope Benedict elevated the late priest’s charity to the status of a pontifical foundation, praising in 2011 its “commitment to strengthening and deepening Catholic faith and moral life”.

The status change for the German-based organisation brought it under the umbrella of the Vatican, with Cardinal Piacenza its new president.

A decade later, confronted with the leaked documents, Aid to the Church in Need has said the “massive deficits in the behaviour of Fr von Straaten cannot be justified”.

It has removed almost all traces of the Norbertine priest from its website.

Asked why it kept secret, for a decade, the truth about its founder, the foundation said its priority was “to avoid reputation damage for the institution and avoid impeding project work”.