Pope Francis refused Thursday to let German Cardinal Reinhard Marx resign over the sex abuse scandal in the German Church, but said a process of reform was necessary and that every bishop must take responsibility for the “catastrophe” of the crisis.
Francis wrote a letter to Marx to respond to his bombshell announcement last week that he had offered to resign as archbishop of Munich and Freising over the church’s mishandling of abuse cases.
Francis refused to accept the resignation and told Marx, one of the pope’s closest advisers, that he must continue as archbishop and “shepherd my sheep.”
Francis said what was necessary instead was a process of reform “that doesn’t consist in words but attitudes that have the courage of putting oneself in crisis, of assuming reality regardless of the consequences.”
Francis’ letter appeared to give Marx papal backing to proceed with the German Church’s controversial reform process that was launched as a response to the abuse crisis. The “Synodal Path” has sparked fierce resistance inside Germany and beyond, primarily from conservatives opposed to opening any debate on issues such as priestly celibacy, women’s role in the church and homosexuality.
The speed with which Francis resoundingly rejected Marx’s offer to resign was curious and suggested the drama might have been somewhat choreographed, perhaps to give Marx backing for the reforms.
Marx had said he had been thinking about resigning for several months and had discussed it with Francis. He said he decided to publish his resignation letter June 4, after Francis gave him permission.
Within a week, Francis had published his response, with the correspondence between both men being made public in a variety of languages.
Francis’ decision to keep Marx on was welcomed by the head of the influential German lay group ZdK, or Central Committee of German Catholics, which is engaged in the reform process.
“I am happy that we are keeping Cardinal Marx as a strong voice, not least with a view to the Synodal Path,” ZdK leader Thomas Sternberg told the Rheinische Post newspaper.
But a prominent group representing German clergy abuse survivors, Eckiger Tisch, said Francis’ decision had deprived Marx’s offer of its radical impact. Marx, the group said in a statement, had targeted the responsibility of all bishops — including the pope — for the church’s “system of abuse and cover-ups.”
“Now the pope is just moderating this shocking insight away and, in so doing, also exonerating his own office,” the group said. “Not much remains of the radical new beginning that Cardinal Marx’s offer of resignation hinted at”
The group said the pope should have listened to German victims before making his decision.
Marx, for his part, said in a statement he was “surprised” by both the speed and the content of the pope’s response, and accepted it out of obedience. But he said he still felt the need to personally carry responsibility for the crisis and would find a way to contribute to the necessary renewal.
“I view this decision by the pope as a great challenge,” Marx said. “Just to go back to business as usual after this cannot be the way for me and for the archdiocese.”
In his letter, Francis said every bishop must take personal and collective responsibility for the institution’s failures to protect young people from sexual predators, and that doing so inherently puts the institution in crisis.
“Not everyone wants to accept this reality, but it’s the only path because making proposals to change your life without ‘putting flesh on the grill,’ won’t do anything,” Francis wrote.
The German church, one of the wealthiest in the world, is the latest to face a reckoning over the abuse scandal, after institutional reports made clear that thousands were victimized by priests and the hierarchy covered up the crimes for decades.
In 2018, a church-commissioned report concluded at least 3,677 people were abused by clergy in Germany between 1946 and 2014. More than half of the victims were 13 or younger and nearly a third were altar boys.
Earlier this year, another report came out about the church officials’ handling of alleged sexual abuse in the country’s western Cologne diocese. The archbishop of Hamburg, a former Cologne church official who was faulted in that report, offered his resignation and was granted a “time out” of unspecified length.
But significantly, the archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, who was cleared of wrongdoing by the report but remains under pressure for his handling of the issue, refused to step aside. Francis recently authorized a Vatican investigation into the archdiocese’s handling of abuse cases.
Marx himself has not been implicated in any of the investigative reports to date, but he said all members of the hierarchy shared blame for the failures. A report is expected this summer about the handling of sexual abuse cases in Marx’s archdiocese.