“I am ashamed”

Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki © Julia Steinbrecht (KNA)

Despite being convicted twice of abuse, a priest continued to serve as a pastor in three dioceses – including the Archdiocese of Cologne. Cardinal Woelki asks forgiveness of those affected.

Interviewer: Cardinal, a priest of the archdiocese of Cologne was able to return to pastoral work despite a final conviction for "continued fornication with minors" and a prison sentence for many years. He was literally shuffled back and forth between three dioceses. How do you explain this?

Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki (Archbishop of Cologne): We should not beat around the bush, but say it clearly: Here, a priest has inflicted terrible suffering on people, and his superiors have allowed him to repeatedly come into contact with people in pastoral care, including children and young people, who could not have guessed that this was a man with a criminal record. That was wrong in any case. We must thoroughly clarify the context.

It is obvious that people here did not live up to their responsibility and knowingly exposed children and adolescents to considerable danger. Therefore, I would like to ask for forgiveness from all those who have been affected. I am ashamed of what happened here.

Interviewer: Is the number of those affected already known?

Cardinal Woelki: This cannot be answered reliably at the moment. It is also conceivable that other affected persons will now speak out. Unfortunately, we now know from experience that after such cases become known, other victims come forward who have often remained silent for years and decades and only now find the courage to speak out. From my discussions with victims and the victims' advisory board that we have set up here, I know how much courage and strength it takes to speak out about what has been done to you after a long period of silence. I am all the more grateful for the participation of those affected here in the Archdiocese of Cologne in the process of clarification, to which there is no alternative.

Interviewer: Will we also learn more about those who bear responsibility for the fact that the priest was repeatedly used in pastoral care?
Cardinal Woelki: Absolutely! It is indispensable that we name here concretely what happened and who is responsible at which point for the corresponding decisions. The names of those responsible will be made public. Of course, the decisions and also the deeds of priest A lie. Some of the cases date back decades, and many of those responsible are likely to be deceased by now.

But it is quite conceivable that even those of us who bear responsibility today will have to admit our own mistakes. I am in complete agreement with my confreres in Essen and Munster that we must insist on consistent clarification here and want to name individual responsibility.

Interviewer: When will the public learn more about this?

Cardinal Woelki: After all, last year I commissioned an independent investigation into sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Cologne. A law firm in Munich, which has a great deal of experience in these matters, has been provided with all the files by us and will present a comprehensive report next spring.

We are not influencing the investigation or the final report. The experts are tasked with answering the question of the extent to which superiors violated state or church law and whether structural conditions in the Archdiocese of Cologne also favored sexual abuse. It is a very far-reaching mandate. As things stand at present, this report will be published in March of next year.

Interviewer: How sure are you that such a case cannot happen again in the church today?
Cardinal Woelki:Much has been done in the meantime, in the Church as a whole, but also especially here in the Archdiocese of Cologne. The independent investigation, with which the cases of abuse are now being consistently clarified, is only one building block in a far-reaching concept that aims to minimize the risk of sexual assault. This includes, for example, the prevention trainings, in which our employees but also our students at the archdiocesan schools are sensitized to the topic and thoroughly trained.

This also includes a completely different approach in the training of priests, in which questions of sexuality are openly addressed today. And above all, it includes a commitment to consistently follow up on all indications of sexual abuse and to involve the public prosecutor's office in all credible allegations, so that the church also places itself clearly under the control of the state investigating authorities. The victims' advisory council also helps us to improve prevention and education from the point of view of those affected.

Interviewer: So you have done everything that can be done?

Cardinal Woelki: We still have more to do and we are still learning. I hope that the independent investigation will help us to identify even better what we can do to make sexual abuse as impossible as possible. We must not tire, even if this topic has been occupying us for a long time. Those affected, but in general all the faithful and the entire public, rightly expect us to do everything humanly possible in the fight against sexual abuse. We are still a long way from reaching our goal, and there is no reason for complacency. On the contrary, cases like the one that has now come to light remind us that the clarification of the past is far from complete.

The interview was conducted by Ingo Bruggenjurgen.

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