Leading German prelate faces calls to resign amid claims he manipulated abuse survivors

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki facing criticism over handling of historical abuse claims in archdiocese

In Cologne archdiocese €820,000 alone has been spent on communications advice for Cardinal Woelki. Photograph: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

One of Germany’s most senior Catholic clerics is facing renewed resignation demands amid claims he manipulated clerical sexual abuse survivors to shield himself from bad publicity.

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, archbishop of Cologne, has spent the last two years battling negative headlines over his handling of historical abuse claims in his archdiocese.

He has been disowned by many parishioners and even some of his own diocesan priests following a steady drip of revelations about abuse and its cover-up, which prompted a papal investigation and a five-month sabbatical for the cardinal.

Now leaked PR strategy documents lay bare the plan adopted by the Cologne archdiocese to contain the abuse scandal in the archdiocese and salvage the cardinal’s reputation.


In October 2020 Cardinal Woelki was presented with a damning report into sexual abuse in the archdiocese and its cover-up. In the report, lawyers hired by the archdiocese named priests and accused several senior clerics — active and deceased — of consistently placing victim care secondary to church reputation.

Cardinal Woelki decided not to release the report, claiming “sloppy” work by the lawyers made it legally impossible to publish.

The leaked PR strategy documents suggested the cardinal and his deputy meet with senior members of a local abuse survivor group to bring them on board with the decision not to publish.

The strategy suggested the clerics “rely on emotion, credibility and authenticity” in their meeting to convince the survivors that the report was defective and impossible to publish and advised that the church leaders “show real rage”.

Leaked minutes of the meeting with survivors indicate vicar-general Markus Hoffmann related how the archdiocese felt “deceived” by the report’s authors.

Rather than telling survivors how much the report revealed, the cardinal and his vicar-general appear to have told survivors they were “angry and alarmed” at the “explosive details” the report allegedly suppressed.

The seven-person survivor committee, who attended the meeting at short notice, were not shown the report nor did they have legal representation.

A day after the meeting, in a “joint declaration” with the survivor group, the archdiocese said that it was withholding the report.

In a later newspaper interview, Cardinal Woelki indicated the survivor group “offered” to support the decision not to publish.

At a press conference, he announced plans for a second report. It appeared last year, identifying more than 200 abusers and 300 victims, mostly young boys. It did not find any evidence that Cardinal Woelki had breached his duty of care. The first – still unpublished – investigation reportedly drew more causal links between abuse and its cover-up by senior, active clerics.

The Munich-based lawyers for the original report have hit back at the Cologne attacks, saying their approach there was identical to that used in other dioceses, including Munich, where there were no complaints or legal difficulties.

Survivor reaction

After the first report was suppressed, two members of the survivor group resigned, claiming they had been used by the cardinal. It later emerged that, before their meeting, the second report had already been commissioned.

“Once again, I feel absolutely not taken seriously,” said Patrick Bauer, former head of the survivor group, to the Catholic News Agency. Another former group member, Karl Haucke, called for state supervision of Catholic clerical sexual abuse investigations “so that truth managers like Mr Woelki can’t continue doing what they want”.

The archdiocese has declined to comment on “confidential papers” but insisted that “transparency and consistency were always the guiding principles” in its interaction with the survivor group.

A media adviser for the archdiocese, Carsten Brennecke, said: “If the survivor advisory board had voted against non-publication ... then the situation and actions would have been reassessed.”

Since 2019 Cologne archdiocese, considered one of the wealthiest in the world, has spent €2.8 million on lawyers and PR specialists in dealing with the fallout from clerical abuse revelations, of which €820,000 has been spent on communications advice for Cardinal Woelki.

Local priests have urged him to break his silence on the revelations.

“If he really implemented the recommendations made by his PR consultants,” said Fr Wolfgang Picken, city dean in neighbouring Bonn, “this could cause irreparably damage to cardinal’s integrity and would be difficult to tolerate”.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin