Germany’s Catholic church may face a wave of clerical abuse compensation claims after the Cologne archdiocese dropped its statute of limitations defence in a closely-watched court case.
On Tuesday Cologne district court began hearing the case of a man who has sued the archdiocese for €805,000 in damages.
Mr Georg Menne says he was sexually abused at least 320 times during the 1970s by a Catholic priest, Erich Jansen. Until his death in 2020 the priest remained active in parish work despite being reported to archdiocese authorities at least twice – in 1980 and 2010.
“If they had taken him out of action these acts wouldn’t have happened with me and other children,” said Mr Menne to WDR public television.
His lawyers accuse the archdiocese of violating its duty of care for not investigating the perpetrator and for allowing him to remain working without oversight in parishes.
Mr Menne, a 63-year-old former pastoral worker for the diocese, has already received €25,000 payment from a church compensation fund, which makes payouts to survivors of clerical sexual abuse without a statute of limitations.
In advance of the civil case, however, archdiocese lawyers signalled they would argue in court that the maximum time period to take legal action on various claims – between three and 30 years – had elapsed.
As negative publicity grew in advance of the court date, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, archbishop of Cologne, indicated on Monday that the archdiocese would not, after all, oppose the case on time grounds.
Instead church lawyers have reportedly agreed to pay the €805,000 sought by Mr Menne in an out-of-court settlement, avoiding a ruling and a legal precedent.
Mr Menne’s legal team indicated they would study the offer but were likely to continue with the legal action. Settling the case, a lawyer for Mr Menne said, would allow “the archdiocese leave the court victorious”. Their client, however, is determined that the “perpetrator organisation” is punished and forced to face up to its own institutional cover-up.
In advance of the trial, warning of potentially far-reaching consequences for the entire Catholic church in Germany, Cardinal Woelki sought a vote on how to proceed from the German Bishops’ Conference (DBK).
Last month leading DBK officials discussed the case and the cardinal’s dilemma over whether to pursue – or drop – the statute-of-limitations defence.
In minutes of that meeting, leaked to the newspaper Christ & Welt, legal counsel for the Cologne archdiocese said the Menne case was “relatively ‘typical’ ... in which the perpetrator was relocated after the allegations became known”.
Another church lawyer warned that dropping the statute of limitations defence potentially opened the door to a wave of lawsuits and settlements. That, in turn, could leave Cardinal Woelki exposed to breach of trust lawsuits over his management of diocesan assets.
Discussing the statute of limitations dilemma, another DBK lawyer reportedly told the meeting the “media impact of the decision (...) should also be taken into account”.
In the end the DBK meeting declined to vote on issue, saying each individual abuse case required its own individual decisions.
On Tuesday a DBK spokesman insisted that waiving the statute of limitations in Cologne was “purely an individual decision that has no binding effect for other cases in this diocese or other dioceses”.
German lawyers are less sure, with a lively debate ongoing over whether the Catholic church, as an institution, can be held liable under German law for crimes committed by its employees – even beyond traditional statutes of limitations.
With a growing wave of clerical abuse allegations washing across Germany’s Catholic church, many believe a ruling against the Cologne archdiocese could set a far-reaching, and expensive, legal precedent for others.
The case is the latest blow to the Cologne archdiocese, a bulwark of the Catholic Rhineland and wracked by growing revolt against Cardinal Woelki.
His handling of an abuse report in the archdiocese has prompted open revolt by churchgoers and his own priests, while a public prosecutor is investigating whether the conservative cardinal gave false testimony about another abusing priest.
This week two leading members of the archdiocese abuse investigation committee have resigned, saying the “special situation in the archdiocese of Cologne makes a constructive and factual discussion impossible” on the abuse issue.
After a five-month sabbatical, Cardinal Woelki submitted his resignation in March to Pope Francis, who has yet to make a decision on his fate.