German Catholic Church Holds Penance Service as 'Confession of Guilt' Over Sex Abuse Cases

The Roman Catholic archdiocese of Cologne in Germany held a service of penance Thursday meant to be a "confession of guilt" for sex abuse cases within the German Catholic Church, the Associated Press reported. The church, which said that the service was not intended to absolve the clergy responsible of their offenses, has become the subject of outcry for its handling of sexual abuse reports.

The crisis in Cologne spurred Pope Francis to advise the archbishop, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, to take a "spiritual timeout" that began in mid-October and will last until the beginning of March 2022.

A report commissioned by Woelki and released earlier this year singled out 75 instances in which eight high-ranking church officials did not fulfill their responsibility to follow up on, report or sanction reports of abuse or care for the victims, the AP reported.

Auxiliary Bishop Rolf Steinhaeuser, who is serving as the interim administrator for the archdiocese, led the service at Cologne Cathedral on Thursday.

"A large number of crimes of sexualized violence against wards have been committed by priests and other church employees of our diocese," Steinhaeuser said during the service.

Steinhaeuser said that the service was meant as a "confession of guilt, remembrance of those affected, intercession," but not intended to vindicate the perpetrators, according to the AP.

"This service does not end with forgiveness," Steinhaeuser said. "We cannot absolve ourselves. Nor do we ask forgiveness from those affected, to make ourselves feel better."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Service of Penance at Cologne Cathedral
The Roman Catholic archdiocese of Cologne in Germany held a service of penance Thursday meant to be a “confession of guilt” for sex abuse cases within the German Catholic Church. A couple sits alone on stairs at the Cologne Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, on May 3, 2020. Martin Meissner/AP Photo

Woelki, the Cologne archbishop, has become a deeply divisive figure in the German church.

In September, Pope Francis decided to leave Woelki in office despite massive criticism over his handling of the church's sexual abuse scandal. The pontiff instead gave the cardinal a "spiritual timeout" of several months after he made "major errors" of communication. The break runs from mid-October to the beginning of March.

Hamburg Archbishop Stefan Hesse, previously a senior church official in Cologne, was faulted for 11 cases of neglecting his duty. Hesse offered his resignation to Francis, who rejected it last week.

The report absolved Woelki himself of any neglect of his legal duties with respect to abuse victims. He subsequently said he made mistakes in past cases involving sexual abuse allegations but made clear he had no intention of resigning.

Woelki previously infuriated many local Catholics by citing legal concerns to keep under wraps a first report on how local church officials reacted when priests were accused of sexual abuse. He commissioned the second report, and a German law firm produced an 800-page investigation.

Karl Haucke, 71, who was sexually abused for several years at a Catholic boarding school, was not impressed by the church's service of penance. Haucke protested outside Cologne Cathedral with several other people Thursday.

He said the church had invited him to participate in the service but he refused to attend.

"It is inhumane to address me with the claim of repentance," Haucke told the Associated Press. "Of course, I have the choice to go there or not, but just addressing the topic can drive people back to their memories. It's not the church's place to do that."

Haucke suggested it would have made more sense to offer the victims a space for a real investigation into the abuse.

"An alternative would have been for those who don't want to act according to the rituals of the church to offer a different space at this memorial occasion," he said. "A neutral space where it's not about repentance and prayer, but about serious interaction, investigation and coming to terms."

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki
A sex abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Cologne spurred Pope Francis to advise the archbishop, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, to take a “spiritual timeout” that began in mid-October and will last until the beginning of March 2022. Woelki speaks to the media to announce further consequences following a report on Catholic clergy members who possibly obstructed investigations or failed to act on cases of sexual abuse by priests and other members of the Cologne Archdiocese, on March 23 in Cologne, Germany. Andreas Rentz/Getty Images