Archbishop Stefan Hebe © Lars Berg (KNA)
An expert report on abuse incriminates Hamburg Archbishop Stefan Hebe. As head of personnel and vicar general in Cologne, he allegedly failed to properly investigate or report eleven cases. What is Hebe accused of?
Hamburg Archbishop Stefan Hebe (54) has offered his resignation to Pope Francis. The abuse report for the Archdiocese of Cologne presented on Thursday attests to eleven breaches of duty in dealing with nine alleged abusers by Hebe, who used to work there as head of personnel and vicar general.
Breaches of duty according to the expert opinion
After evaluating more than 200 documents, lawyers from the law firm Gercke Wollschlager found that Hebe had violated his duty to report suspicious cases to the public prosecutor's office or the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith five times. Six incidents he allegedly failed to properly clear up.
One case involves a clergyman who allegedly sexually abused his then eleven-year-old nephew in 1971. The nephew turned to the Archdiocese of Cologne's sexual abuse contact person in 2011. He reported that his uncle had also tried to sexually abuse his two cousins.
In a conversation with personnel director Hebe and the legal advisor, the accused then admitted that he had tried to touch his nephew. At that time, however, he was already 17 to 18 years old. The rest of the allegations were fabricated. The victim received a benefit from the archdiocese in 2012 in recognition of his suffering – an indication that his account was considered plausible. Beyond that, however, nothing happened.
Hebe should have had a conversation with the nephew according to church guidelines, clarified his age at the time of the crime and located the cousins, the experts said. The legal advisor should have reported the case to the prosecutor's office. Hebe told the lawyers that the person concerned had been asked to ask the cousins to come forward. But this did not happen. The case was apparently closed for him.
Much is unclear
It is unclear whether Hebe informed his superiors at the time, Vicar General Dominikus Schwaderlapp and Archbishop Joachim Meisner, about the case. They should have initiated canonical proceedings. Hebe told the reviewers that he had wondered himself when reading the file that the case had not gone further. From his point of view, the head of the Cologne ecclesiastical court, Offizial Gunter Assenmacher, had been responsible for proceedings under canon law. Whether the latter learned of the case is unclear.
Similarly, other incidents came to nothing – partly because one of those responsible relied on the other, partly because personnel manager Hebe, according to the report, arrived at incorrect assessments. Thus he justified his non-action in several cases with the fact that he considered the described acts only for border-violating behavior and not for sexual abuse. But this should have been assessed by others, such as the public prosecutor's office and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the experts said.
In the case of the priest U., who is alleged to have committed multiple acts of sexual abuse against his three underage nieces between 1993 and 1999, the lawyers accuse Hebe of deliberately failing to keep a record of a conversation with U. to have kept a record of its activities so that it could not be confiscated in the event of a government investigation. This is documented by a memo written by Hebe's secretary and signed by himself. Hebe stated for the record that he could not explain how his signature came to be under the note.
Possibly there had been a lot to do on that day. In any case, the priest's file remained free of incriminating evidence and no ecclesiastical investigation was initiated. After the case was reopened in 2018 under Archbishop Rainer Maria Woelki, the Cologne public prosecutor's office filed charges last year against U. raised.
Hebe was also involved in the case of Father A, who has since been dismissed from the clergy. Despite two convictions for child abuse in the 1970s and 80s, the priest was allowed to continue working as a pastor for decades in his home diocese of Cologne and in the dioceses of Munster and Essen. In 2008, another victim reported to the archdiocese, from A. to have been abused between 1964 and 1970 at the age of 8 to 14 years. He wanted to know if the archdiocese was already aware of the incidents at the time and if the priest was held accountable.
Head of personnel Hebe replied to the person concerned in a letter that the clergyman had served a prison sentence, but that the archdiocese was not aware of any complaints from the period in question so far. Thus the case was closed for Hebe. According to the experts, he should have clarified the matter further, for example by confronting the clergyman with the accusations.
Not prepared to deal with abuse cases
In total, 135 suspicious activity reports were received by the archdiocese during Hess's tenure as head of personnel and vicar general. At least that many are registered in the files. In his questioning, Hebe repeatedly stated that he could not remember the individual cases exactly. In part, his memory returned through file study – a total of several thousand pages.
In general, Hebe stated that he had not been prepared for dealing with abuse cases before taking up his position as head of personnel. Mostly he had considered with vicar general Schwaderlapp, the legal adviser and the Offizial Assenmacher what to do.
The informal committee is said to have met regularly in the vicar general's office. The decision to deal with an accused person, however, had always rested with Archbishop Meisner. He had informed the latter about all suspicious reports, Hebe ared. This is often not documented in the files. It becomes clear that Hebe apparently saw himself more as an advisor to the archbishop than as a decision-maker.
The study credits Hebe with the fact that the year 2010, when reports of abuse "flooded" the archdiocese, fell during his time as head of personnel. In view of numerous legal changes, there was a lack of clarity about the legal situation. In addition, Hebe had relied on the partly inadequate advice of the legal advisor and the Offizial Assenmacher.
In some cases, Hebe was able to clear up the accusations against him. In not a single case do the experts attest to obstruction of justice in the criminal law sense. Nevertheless, his declaration of innocence, which he had expressed several times beforehand, can no longer be upheld after the publication of the study. The Hamburg archbishop's request for resignation is seen by many observers as a consistent and appropriate step.