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Cologne church child abuse report finds officials failed in their duties

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FILE PHOTO: The chairman of the Catholic German Bishops Conference, Cardinal Georg Baetzing, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.speaks to the media during a press conference
FILE PHOTO: The chairman of the Catholic German Bishops Conference, Cardinal Georg Baetzing, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.speaks to the media during a press conference   -   Copyright  Sascha Steinbach/AP
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Hundreds of children have been sexually abused since 1975 in the Catholic diocese of Cologne, according to a long-awaited report which showed, in dozens of the cases, high ranking officials neglected their duties.

The 800-page report found 314 children, mostly boys under the age of 14, were sexually abused between 1975 and 2018 by 202 alleged perpetrators, lawyer Björn Gercke told a news conference.

Archbishop Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne - Germany’s biggest diocese - had angered many by refusing to release an earlier report on how local church officials reacted when priests were accused of sexual assault, citing legal concerns.

The new report he commissioned, put together by a German law firm and based on church files, was released on Thursday.

The focus of the investigation wasn’t so much on what the suspects did to the victims, but more on whether the church — former and current archbishops, vicars-general and other high-ranking church officials — responded correctly to accusations of abuse.

Woelki's predecessor, Cardinal Joachim Meisner, was accused of two dozen instances of wrongdoing, such as failing to follow up on or report cases of abuse, not sanctioning perpetrators, or not caring for victims. Meisner retired in 2014 and died in 2017.

Hamburg Archbishop Stefan Hesse — who previously was a senior church official in Cologne — was faulted for 11 cases of neglecting his duty. He denied the accusations, German news agency dpa reported.

While Woelki wasn’t found to have neglected his duty in the report, his failure to release the previous report sparked outrage, and a rise in the number of people leaving the church.

The membership of the Catholic Church, which remains the country's largest denomination, has fallen to 22.6 million in 2019, 2 million fewer than in 2010, the year paedophilia scandals in the Church were revealed.

The head of the German Bishops’ Conference, Limburg Bishop Georg Baetzing, last month described the crisis management in Cologne as a “disaster”.

Jens Windel, 46, the founder of a support group for clergy abuse survivors, said the report “trivializes the severity of the cover-ups that took place.”

Woelki said the investigation confirmed his fears that high-ranking officials were guilty of not having reported perpetrators and thereby preventing their prosecution.

“My predecessors, too, are guilty — as of today it is no longer possible to say 'We didn’t know,’” he said, adding that he would send the report to the Holy See in Rome.

He added that he would temporarily suspend two Cologne church officials based on the findings of the investigation.

One of them, Auxiliary Bishop Dominikus Schwaderlapp, said he had offered his resignation to Pope Francis.

The report found Schwaderlapp neglected his duty to inform and report abuse allegations in eight cases.

German Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht said the report demonstrated anew “what horrific sexual violence children and teenagers had to suffer in Catholic institutions.”

“Child abuse is not an internal church matter, but a crime that must be examined and decided by criminal courts,” the minister said.

In 2018, a report commissioned by the German Church revealed that 3,677 children or teenagers had been sexually abused since 1946 by more than 1,000 clergymen, most of whom had not been punished.

The authors of the study warned that the number of victims was probably higher because they did not have access to all the archives.