Bishop Bode and Cardinal Woelki: Is There a ‘Double Standard’ in Germany With Respect to Mishandling of Abusive Priests?

Observers say Cardinal Woelki’s orthodoxy accounts for the much harsher public criticism he has received, even though his documented mistakes were far less serious than those made by Bishop Bode.

Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne and Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück.
Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne and Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück. (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

VATICAN CITY — The initial furor over a leading German bishop judged last month in a damning report to have gravely mishandled historical abuse cases quickly died down after he refused to resign — in striking contrast to the ongoing criticism directed against Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne over significantly less serious mistakes. 

The muted reaction to Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück and the media and episcopal pressure that continues to be heaped on Cardinal Woelki, despite the Vatican clearing him of wrongdoing in handling sexual-abuse cases, seems even more unjustified when the findings of reports about the diocesan handling of abuse in Osnabrück and Cologne are examined in detail.

An interim report, published Sept. 19 on sexual abuse in the Diocese of Osnabrück since 1945, showed that Bishop Bode, who has headed the diocese since 1995, and other diocesan leaders neglected to carry out adequate monitoring of clergy after they had been removed from their posts following abuse accusations.

Bishop Bode is vice president of both the German bishops’ conference and the German Synodal Way. He has publicly supported positions at odds with Church teaching, including women deacons and the development of a Church ceremony for blessing same-sex unions.


Bishop Bode’s Actions

The Osnabrück report, compiled on the diocese’s behalf by the University of Osnabrück, states that in his first decades as ordinary of the diocese, Bishop Bode left accused persons in office, “even those whose dangerousness could hardly be doubted,” or had them placed in roles “that made further opportunities possible, for example as a subsidiary (temporary priest) and parish administrator or even entrusted with management tasks in youth pastoral care.” 

In 11 of the 16 cases described in detail in the report, Bishop Bode was involved to varying degrees, but the study underlines several times that, as a bishop, he was “of course ultimately responsible for all the actions of the diocese.” 

Of these 11 cases where Bishop Bode had some degree of direct involvement, the German Catholic news agency KNA noted that in one of them Bishop Bode initially left on duty a priest, known as “TD,” who had been accused of sexual assault and rape against a minor, and did not send him, the accused, for therapy. Later, the report continued, not enough attention was paid to whether the priest could attack again, nor was any canonical procedure carried out.

In the case of another priest, known as “ES,” 21 victims contacted the Church authorities to say that they had been attacked, almost all of them under the age of 14 when first abused. ES was retired in 1997 on the basis of a doctor’s certificate, but Bishop Bode employed him as a subsidiary in a congregation in 2000, and the appointment was renewed several times, the report stated. In the meantime, ES even led the parish as a substitute parish administrator.

In summarizing the ES case, the report said that Bishop Bode and the other diocesan leaders favored the accused cleric up until 2010, and the interests of affected parties did not appear in their considerations. “There was only a real discussion with those affected from 2018 onwards,” KNA reported, citing the report. “Contacts were primarily made via newly appointed independent contact persons.”

In another case called “SB,” a girl aged 14-16 was abused in the 1980s by SB, and the victim was manipulated by the accused into being dependent on him. In 2002, following therapy, the woman informed the bishop about her experiences. Although she told Bishop Bode in a later telephone call that SB should no longer be used in child and youth work and Bishop Bode “was aware of the delicate situation,” he allowed the accused to be entrusted with a part-time management position in youth work. He was confirmed twice in the role. “Possible further crimes were not prevented by this, but rather they would have been facilitated by them,” the study concluded.

The report also found two other recurring findings: that almost no efforts were made to look for other victims when cases had become known; and that the real reasons for a transfer or retirement were rarely given publicly. The study did confirm that Bishop Bode and his team had made significant progress in dealing with accused priests, especially in recent years. But communications with victims have continued to be poor and the aid and payments to victims similarly lacking, the report said. 


Declines to Resign

Bishop Bode said in a statement that he had thought about resigning after the publication of the report documenting his mishandling of abuse cases but that he had ultimately decided against it.

“I bear responsibility for this, also for the system in the diocese,” the bishop said. 

“I had wanted this interim report so that the truth would also come to light as quickly as possible,” he said. “Now I am very concerned about how blind we have actually been and how blind I have been for the suffering and the perspectives of those affected.”

At a Sept. 22 press conference, Bishop Bode said he consulted with those he works with and, rather than resign, “decided to do my best for the rest of my term of office and to take on the tasks and duties to follow up, which the interim report already shows, and also to face the results of the final report,” CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner, reported.

The bishop also told journalists that he had discussed the possibility of resigning with a leading safeguarding expert, Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, before deciding not to do so, indicating that he was possibly heeding the advice of Father Zollner. But the bishop’s spokesman, Thomas Arzner, later clarified that Father Zollner “spoke neither for nor against the bishop’s resignation,” The Pillar reported Oct. 5. 

Bishop Bode is not the only senior German bishop to have been criticized for mishandling abuse cases. The president of Germany’s bishops’ conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing, was censured earlier this year for his handling of an abuse case that came to light this year. Bishop Bätzing had promoted a priest to the post of district dean despite his having been accused of sexual harassment. 

The bishop said he took the decision to promote the priest after he had made it “unmistakably clear that he disapproved of such behavior,” that the priest “apologized for his behavior” to the victim, and after the priest, who had been struggling “intensively” with his misconduct for many years, had “showed credible remorse.” The head of the German bishops said if the case had come to him today, he would have referred it to a diocesan advisory board, but no such board then existed. 

Similar to what happened with Bishop Bode, the fallout from the case has quickly died down.


Cardinal Woelki’s Actions

But for Cardinal Woelki, pressure continues, despite a Vatican investigation finding no evidence in 2021 that he had acted unlawfully in relation to abuse cases. 

The investigation cleared him of a case involving a Düsseldorf priest alleged to have abused a boy of kindergarten age in the late 1970s. Cardinal Woelki decided not to take further action nor notify Rome of the priest after Woelki had been appointed archbishop of Cologne in 2014, as the priest was “unable to be questioned” due to advanced dementia. He has since died of natural causes. The victim also allegedly refused to testify.

The investigation did fault Cardinal Woelki for major mistakes in his approach to the issue of coming to terms with abuse overall, especially at the level of communication, and this had “contributed significantly to a crisis of confidence in the archdiocese that has disturbed many of the faithful.”

At the center of those charges was the fact that the cardinal had failed to make public the results of a completed archdiocesan investigation of sexual abuse, under current and previous leaders, and carried out by a Munich law firm. According to the cardinal, however, the report had to be withheld because of legal concerns and its “methodological deficiencies.” 

Still, the cardinal admitted that the commission he had set up to investigate abuse cases and name abusers had “made mistakes,” that “we did not communicate well,” and that he bore “ultimate responsibility” for the problems. But he insisted the commission’s goals hadn’t changed: “to clarify the situation” and do everything possible to help victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in the Archdiocese of Cologne.

“I am really sorry that those affected are again exposed to new suffering, so to speak, because of what we have done here, but also all sisters and brothers in the other dioceses as well,” he said in a February 2021 statement. The cardinal had already pledged to issue a new report on the investigation’s findings, and that it would “name those responsible.” 

In that second report, which Cardinal Woelki commissioned and was made public in March 2021, he was exonerated of any accusations of misconduct, but it did lead him to suspend some diocesan officials and prompted Archbishop Stefan Hesse of Hamburg to offer his resignation due to actions he had taken when he was serving in Cologne.

Earlier this year, the Vatican also ruled that Cardinal Woelki did not breach canon law when awarding contracts connected to these reports into clerical abuse. 

In March this year, and unlike Bishops Bode and Bätzing, Cardinal Woelki offered his resignation to the Pope after facing a torrent of criticism, despite his culpability being less than that of president and vice president of the German bishops’ conference when it came to handling individual abuse cases. It followed a five-month enforced break that began in September 2021 after the Vatican investigation had found he had made major mistakes in coming to terms with abuse overall in the diocese. The Pope declined to accept the resignation. 


Continuing Criticisms

And yet the criticisms levelled against Cardinal Woelki and pressure placed on him to resign continue. As recently as last week, Cardinal Reinhard Marx — who has himself faced more serious allegations of mishandling abuse and also offered his resignation to the Pope, which was subsequently refused — called for more transparency so the results of the Vatican investigation into Cardinal Woelki can be fully known (results of apostolic visitations are rarely, if ever, disclosed). 

Cardinal Marx said it was “suboptimal” that the fate of an archbishop should be left to Rome and the local Church left out. “Clearly regulated procedures are needed for this. We don‘t have them,” he said. 

As the Register reported last year, Cardinal Woelki has been clearly targeted by many of his brother German bishops, most probably due to his outspoken criticism of the German Synodal Path — a multiyear process that began in January 2020 and which is widely seen as a means to use the fallout from the sexual-abuse crisis to introduce greater acceptance of homosexuality into the Church, women priests, and an end to clerical celibacy, among other heterodox novelties. 

A German Church source told the Register that it is indeed “scandalous how double standards are applied.” He noted that Cardinal Woelki had “made no mistake in the handling of abuse cases” in either of the reports he had commissioned. 

“Further, he was the first to commission an extensive expert opinion to clarify the personal responsibilities of the decision-makers acting at that time and also to draw consequences from it,” the source said. “By contrast, Bishop Bode repeatedly just admonished priests whose guilt was beyond doubt and transferred them to other parishes.”

Various German Church sources also put the inconsistency of treatment down to Cardinal Woelki being poorly advised in the field of communications and on account of his own idiosyncratic and individualistic approach to governance. Bishop Bode, on the other hand, immediately engaged with media friendly to him, providing them with the headlines they wanted, such as his comment: “I was blind.” 

“And, of course,” said one of the German Church sources, “the perception of Cardinal Woelki as an ‘evil conservative’ and Bishop Bode as the ‘good reformer’ plays a role.” 

Added to this is the fact that Cologne is one of the wealthiest dioceses in the world, with a net worth estimated to be higher than that of the Vatican. “It’s really all about power and money,” said another German Church source. “That’s why they want to get rid of him and to push through the Synodal Way.”