“Did not cover up abuse cases”

Hamburg Archbishop Stefan Hebe has denied allegations that he covered up cases of sexual abuse when he was head of personnel at the Archdiocese of Cologne. "I have always looked and not looked away," he emphasized.

"I personally claim for myself that I have taken my responsibility and not covered up," said Hebe in an interview with the "Zeit" supplement "Christ Welt" (Thursday). "I have always looked and not looked away," Hebe emphasized. Certainly, mistakes also happened to him, but he could exclude that he had ever tried to protect perpetrators or to cover up acts. Hebe has been archbishop of Hamburg since 2015 and was previously head of personnel in the archdiocese of Cologne from 2006 and vicar general there from 2012.

According to "Christ und Welt," a previously unpublished study on sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Cologne accuses Hebe of an "indifferent" attitude toward the abuse of minors by clerics that is "marked by a lack of awareness of the problem". According to Hebe, this finding has no basis. "I acted to the best of my ability to do justice to each case," he explained. For example, in one of six cases in which accusations were made against him, the allegedly affected person was already an adult. Hebe did not want to comment on further details, citing the personal rights of those affected.

Presentation postponed indefinitely

The presentation of the investigation, commissioned by Cologne Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki and prepared by a Munich law firm, was originally scheduled for March, but was canceled at short notice and postponed indefinitely. According to the official justification of the Archdiocese of Cologne, the planned naming of former or active responsible persons still needed legal clarification and safeguarding.

Hebe explained that he had been willing to cooperate in the study from the beginning, but criticized the concept. The process was not particularly transparent. In the six specific cases on which he was to comment, he had only been allowed to see all the files after repeated urging in April: "Overall, I have the impression that the authors of the study could have worked more thoroughly."

Hebe: Joint responsibility, no guilt

He confirmed research by "Christ und Welt", according to which he had drawn the attention of the Archdiocese of Cologne to problems of the study in a statement shortly before the planned presentation: "I have pointed out aspects of data protection law and personal rights." Hebe, according to the paper, demanded that the study be published only together with his point of view. Asked whether he would take legal action against the Archbishopric of Cologne or the Munich law firm if his demand was not met, Hebe replied: "I am relying on common sense in the Archbishopric of Cologne and in the law firm in Munich."

In his own words, the archbishop is not afraid of losing his office: "I will face up to the task of coming to terms with the abuse." He bears no guilt, but he does share responsibility "for a system that undoubtedly caused suffering".

Hebe admitted that dealing with the abuse cases had been very difficult at the time. "We are not the police or the public prosecutor's office. Our possibilities to investigate the truth are limited."He was not prepared for the conversations with perpetrators and victims. "I was not trained for this. Today I see that as a great deficit."How great the dimension of sexual abuse in the church was, he said, only became aware of it over time as personnel director. He is very grateful for today's standards.

Abuse files destroyed in the Archdiocese of Cologne

Hebe also admitted that files containing information about cases of abuse were stored in a secret archive and regularly destroyed. During his time as head of personnel, he stopped this practice. Files that should be removed from the normal personnel file are actually stored in the secret archive in order to protect personal privacy, Hebe explained. When asked, he admitted: "Of course, it was also knowledge of the authorities. And it was the delicate cases: It was all that should not occur."There was a "rite" to look through and destroy the files after ten years. "I experienced this once and thought little of it at first."When an abuse victim contacted him, he had not been able to find the case in the files anymore. "I then immediately had clear: Such files must be preserved," said Hebe.

In the meantime, a special group of experts is working on standards for the maintenance of files in all German dioceses. He said this was a consequence of the German bishops' abuse study published in 2018. In the Archdiocese of Hamburg, which Hebe has presided over as archbishop since 2015, no files were destroyed, he ared.

According to Hebe, cases of abuse were already a matter for the boss in 2006, when he became head of personnel in the archdiocese of Cologne. With Prelate Norbert Trippen (1936-2017), there had been a contact person for those affected, who had taken up cases and examined them "very roughly". On this basis, Hebe then inspected the files together with the legal adviser and held talks with those affected and the accused. At the next opportunity, he said, he reported to Cardinal Joachim Meisner (1933-2017) and the Vicar General: "I presented each case to Cardinal Meisner directly."

He experienced Meisner as someone who listened very carefully: "Every case was different, there were difficult decisions and people could have different opinions." In the end, it had always run "in cooperation". His attitude has always been "to bring the ie into the diocese and to make it clear that we have a problem," Hebe said. However, not everyone wanted to hear that.

Higher payments to abuse victims

Further Hebe spoke out for an increase of the acknowledgment payments to abuse victims within the Catholic church. "I have always advocated in the bishops' conference to significantly increase the sums that are far too small," he said. "The abuse occupies the victims for a lifetime. And I ame that this will also be taken into account in the reform of the system of recognition benefits."

The German Catholic bishops want to decide this week at their plenary meeting in Fulda a system for the recognition of the suffering suffered by victims of abuse. According to a principle resolution from spring they want to orient themselves at the civil law pain compensation table. This provides for sexual abuse currently sums between 5.000 and 50.000 euros per case. Previously, benefits of up to 400.000 euros under discussion. Currently, the Catholic Church pays victims of abuse an average of 5.000 euros.

Instead of paying recognition benefits, Hebe refused to pay compensation. In this way, the victims are spared having to prove their abuse, he reasoned. This was necessary in the case of compensation.

The archbishop further stated, "No amount of money can compensate for the suffering caused by sexual abuse."It is of course not satisfactory that such a great and terrible injustice is associated with a sum of money: "But we have not yet found a better form of recognition in our society apparently."

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