Cardinal Marx’s Handling of Abuse Cases Under Scrutiny

A criminologist who was commissioned by the German bishops to investigate clergy abuse cases has alleged that the cardinal intervened to undermine his investigation.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx
arrives for the afternoon session of the Amazon Synod at the Vatican, October 8, 2019.
Cardinal Reinhard Marx arrives for the afternoon session of the Amazon Synod at the Vatican, October 8, 2019. (photo: Daniel Ibanez / CNA/EWTN)

VATICAN CITY — German Cardinal Reinhard Marx has rejected as “baseless” accusations he prevented a full disclosure of information regarding clergy sex-abuse cases in his diocese a decade ago — similar to accusations he himself has made against Cardinal Rainer Woelki, the archbishop of Cologne.

The charges were made against Cardinal Marx, the archbishop of Munich and Freising, by German criminologist Christian Pfeiffer, whom the German bishops commissioned in 2011 to investigate a major study of abuse in the Church in Germany. That study was published in 2018.

Last month, Pfeiffer repeated strident criticisms he had made to Bavarian newspaper Merkur in February 2020 regarding his investigation, saying that he and his research colleagues were unable to obtain some key information they were promised, in particular relating to any bishops who continued to employ priests guilty of sexual abuse.

Pfeiffer also claimed the cardinal had hired a Munich law firm to draw up a new draft contract for the bishops’ conference regarding his investigation, a move that he said was tantamount to “censorship.” The research team could not accept this new contract, Pfeiffer added, causing the collaboration to end.

He told Merkur that Cardinal Marx’s “primary goal was evidently to protect Pope Benedict” and his handling of abuse, when as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger the future pope served as archbishop of Munich and Freising from 1977 to 1982.  Pfeiffer alleged an additional goal was to protect Cardinal Marx himself and “all other members of the bishops’ conference and their vicars general.” 

To protect the Church’s credibility, he called on Cardinal Marx and Bishop Stephan Ackermann, the German bishops’ spokesman on child abuse, to resign as the conference’s representatives on sexual abuse “and thus enable a real fresh start.” 

Asked if there were any truth to Pfeiffer’s accusations, a spokesman for the cardinal told the Register March 5 “we reject all these baseless accusations.”  According to some Church sources in Germany, Pfeiffer’s views of Cardinal Marx may be negatively influenced by having had his contract prematurely cut short by Cardinal Marx. 

Matthias Kopp, spokesman for the German Bishops’ Conference, said in February 2020 there was no question of preventing a transparent investigation, and that the archdiocese was pursuing “a complete clarification and comprehensive review.”  

On Feb. 8 this year, the cardinal revealed that an archdiocesan report on sexual abuse cases from 1945 to 2019 would be published, through an independent law firm in Munich. The cardinal, who has said he expects the report to be published in the summer, has pledged not to cover up in any way what might have happened during the administration of his predecessors, Cardinal Ratzinger and Cardinal Friedrich Wetter. 

Almost 11 years ago and under Cardinal Marx’s leadership, Munich became the first German diocese to order an external report on sexual abuse and physical violence, but that report was never published and has been “a great mystery ever since,” according to the German news agency DPA. 

In December, Cardinal Marx then took his diocese by surprise by announcing he would be setting up a charitable foundation to help people affected by sexual abuse in the Church and to open up paths of healing and reconciliation. 

Called Spes et Salus, the cardinal — who this year celebrates his 25th anniversary as bishop — said he was giving the “vast majority” of his private assets totaling 500,000 euros to the foundation. Due largely to Church tax revenue, German bishops earn on average 14,000 euros a month, have little expenditure and reside in bishops’ palaces rent free. The archdiocese, which did not say why the cardinal’s foundation has been set up now, said the new entity would cooperate with the Center for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. 

But it is not just Cardinal Marx’s time in Munich that is under scrutiny. His record as bishop of Trier from 2002 to 2008 has also been criticized. Both the cardinal and Bishop Ackermann, who succeeded him as bishop of Trier in 2009, have recently been accused of mishandling the case of a 30-year-old diocesan employee in Trier who was made pregnant by her priest employer around the year 2000. 

According to published statements, the priest reportedly urged the woman, known pseudonymously as Karin Weissenfels, to have an abortion against her will. When she refused, he had a priest friend of his counsel her in the confessional to get an abortion, which she subsequently did.

A Feb. 23 report published by Deustchlandfunk, a national public broadcaster, accused both Cardinal Marx and Bishop Ackermann of being hesitant and too late to investigate such a grave sin. According to the report, Cardinal Marx initiated an investigation into the priest superior but not the confessor — an error he apparently admitted in a letter to the Congregation for Clergy in 2007. Deustchlandfunk reports that both priests were initially sanctioned, but claims the Vatican removed the disciplinary measures after a few months.

Both this case and Pfeiffer’s accusations have re-emerged as Cardinal Woelki of Cologne continues to face severe criticism, including from Cardinal Marx and his successor as head of the bishops’ conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing, for failing to make public the results of a completed archdiocesan investigation of sexual abuse under current and previous leaders. 

Despite the questions over his own record in handling abuse cases, Cardinal Marx said Feb. 7 that Cardinal Woelki’s withholding of the Cologne report has been “extremely negative for all of us” and that the “damage to the Catholic Church is great.”

Cardinal Woelki has acknowledged that “serious mistakes” have been made in the past regarding how the archdiocese handled clergy sexual abuse cases, but insists that the commission’s report had to be withheld because of legal concerns and its “methodological deficiencies.” He consequently ordered a new report on the investigation’s findings, which will be published on March 18 and “name those responsible” for mishandling abuse. 

A second claim against Cardinal Woelki, accusing him of not investigating serious abuse allegations against a priest in his diocese, was dismissed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith last month. 

Church sources in Germany have viewed the criticism of Cardinal Woelki as disproportionate, and probably based in part on the cardinal’s clear opposition to the German bishops’ Synodal Path, which he has warned could lead to schism.

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