German Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne speaks at a press conference on September 24, 2021, after Pope Francis granted him a six-month “spiritual sabbatical”. (Photo CNS / Harald Oppitz, KNA)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne to take “spiritual sabbatical” after Vatican investigation found he had done nothing illegal in his handling of sexual abuse allegations committed by clerics, but he contributed to a “crisis of confidence” in his archdiocese.

The German Bishops’ Conference announced on September 24 that Pope Francis had had “a long conversation” with Cardinal Woelki earlier in September and accepted the cardinal’s request to take a break from mid-October to March 1 because he was “evident that the Cardinal and the Archdiocese need a time of pause, renewal and reconciliation.

Auxiliary Bishop of Cologne, Rolf Steinhäuser, will serve as apostolic administrator of the archdiocese and lead “a spiritual process of reconciliation and renewal,” the statement said.

In May, Pope Francis ordered an apostolic visit to the Archdiocese of Cologne “to get a full picture of the complex pastoral situation” there and to investigate how accusations of sexual abuse by clerics have come about. was dealt with by the cardinal and by the auxiliary bishops Dominik Schwaderlapp and Ansgar Puff, both of whom had offered to resign.

After an on-site investigation and review by the offices of the Roman Curia, Pope Francis “decided not to accept their resignation from office. In the case of the two bishops, there are isolated shortcomings in the handling of the proceedings, “but” no intention to cover up abuses or ignore those concerned, “said the German bishops’ statement.

Bishop Puff will immediately resume his regular ministry, the statement said, while Bishop Schwaderlapp “requested to be allowed to work for a year as chaplain in the Archdiocese of Mombasa, Kenya, before resuming his ministry as auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Eau de Cologne. The Holy Father granted this request.

As for Cardinal Woelki, 65, according to the press release, “there is no indication that he acted illegally in dealing with cases of sexual abuse.”

Claims that the cardinal wanted to cover up cases or the extent of the problem “are refuted by facts that have since been published and documents reviewed by the Holy See. The Archbishop’s determination to accept crimes of abuse in the church, to reach out to those affected and to promote prevention is evident especially in his implementation of the recommendations of the second study, which he already has. started.

An uproar followed the cardinal’s decision not to publish a first report from a Munich law firm on how the charges were being handled. Instead, the cardinal commissioned a new report from a Cologne criminal lawyer and released it in March. The report cleared Cardinal Woelki of wrongdoing.

Cardinal Woelki “made major errors in his approach to the issue of the global acceptance of abuses, particularly at the level of communication,” the statement said. “This contributed significantly to the crisis of confidence in the archdiocese, which disturbed many faithful” and prompted the cardinal to ask the Pope to grant him a sabbatical leave.

Speaking to reporters in Cologne on September 24, the cardinal asked people to acknowledge how the Pope and the Vatican investigation found he had treated the allegations “seriously and thoroughly and did not cover anything up.”

Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, president of the German Bishops’ Conference, expressed on Twitter his hope for a “process of reconciliation in the Archdiocese of Cologne” with Cardinal Woelki absent, but said he did not was not sure that there could be “a fundamentally altered situation in a few months.”

The bishop said that many victims of sexual abuse by clerics and many Catholics in the archdiocese would be “perplexed and hurt” by the pope’s decision not to remove any of the bishops. He therefore prayed that Catholics in Cologne would have “a lot of strength, determination and the patience necessary for the journey which begins now.

Thomas Sternberg, chairman of the Central Committee of German Catholics, said he could not understand the Vatican’s decision to keep Cardinal Woelki in office.

“The instrument of a period of sabbatical leave is not enough. It is not at all clear what the end of such a sabbatical might be, and it is not suited to restore lost confidence.

Sabbatical leave is not a solution to the crisis of confidence, he added.

“In politics and democratic structures, a resignation can help take responsibility and initiate change. The Vatican decision prevents such a process of renewal, which is absolutely necessary. What is important now, he said, is that the leadership of the Archdiocese do everything possible to closely involve the faithful in order to find out “how a constructive church life in the Archdiocese becomes possible again” .

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Anli Serfontein in Berlin contributed to this story.