By Philip Pullella and Douglas Busvine
ROME/BERLIN -The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cologne will take a “spiritual time-out” from his duties after committing grave errors in a crisis over clerical sexual abuse, but will retain his post, the Vatican said on Friday.
Archbishop Rainer Maria Woelki, 65, had faced criticism for his handling of allegations of past child sex abuse, in particular for shelving a report into wrongdoing by priests over unspecified shortcomings in methodology.
It was clear that Woelki needed “time to reflect, to renew and to reconcile”, the Vatican said after talks between Pope Francis and Woelki on a crisis that has rocked the church in Germany and follows many similar scandals around the world.
“This has led Pope Francis to accommodate Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki’s wish for a spiritual time-out,” the Holy See said in a statement.
The announcement from Rome sought to resolve a long-running scandal that has shaken the richest national branch of the Catholic Church, dividing its leadership and eroding a flock that numbers more than 20 million people.
Yet, coming directly after a three-day meeting of German bishops that sought to chart a path out of the crisis, the statement from the Holy See came as a surprise to the chairman of the gathering.
Responding to the Vatican statement, Bishop Georg Baetzing said he had learned of the decision by Pope Francis only on Friday. He said he had been unaware of it on Thursday – the final day of the autumn bishops’ convention.
“I accept the decisions of the Holy Father and hope that the process of reconciliation will begin in the Archdiocese of Cologne,” Baetzing said in a statement.
“I am unable to judge whether this can lead to a fundamental change in the situation over the next few months.”
The Pope in May dispatched two senior foreign bishops to investigate the Archbishop of Cologne’s handling of sexual abuse allegations in Germany’s largest archdiocese.
In what was interpreted at the time as a rebuke, liberal Cardinal Reinhard Marx subsequently offered to resign as archbishop of Munich, saying he had to share responsibility for sexual abuse committed by clerics in the past.
The Vatican said that there was no evidence that Woelki had broken the law in relation to the cases of sexual abuse.
“Nonetheless, he committed grave errors in his approach to the question of dealing with this question, above all in the area of communication,” it said. “That contributed to a large extent to the crisis of confidence than has shaken many of the faithful.”
In a statement issued by his office, Woelki thanked Francis while recognising that trust had been lost in recent months. He would dedicate himself to contemplation and prayer through a time-out running to March 1.
“I am walking this path with a clear message from the Holy Father that we have provided serious and comprehensive information and that we have not covered up anything,” said Woelki, reprising earlier denials of wrongdoing.
“I would like to ask you to pray for the Archdiocese and for me in the coming weeks. I also promise you my fervent prayer.”