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Pope retains German archbishop criticized over abuse scandal

BERLIN (AP) — Pope Francis has decided to leave in office a prominent German archbishop who faced criticism for his handling of the church's sexual abuse scandal, but the pontiff also gave the cleric a “spiritual timeout” of several months after he made “major errors" of communication, the Vatican said Friday.

The pope “is counting on” the archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, the Vatican said in a statement. “But at the same time it is clear that the archbishop and the archdiocese need a time for a pause, renewal and reconciliation.”

That, it said, prompted Francis to grant Woelki's request for a break that will run from mid-October to the beginning of March. Woelki has become a deeply divisive figure in the German church. A report commissioned by the archbishop and issued in March found 75 cases in which eight high-ranking officials — including Woelki’s late predecessor — neglected their duties to either follow up on, report or sanction cases of alleged abuse by clergy and lay church employees, and failed to take care of the victims.

Hamburg Archbishop Stefan Hesse, previously a senior church official in Cologne, was faulted for 11 cases of neglecting his duty. Hesse offered his resignation to Francis, who eventually rejected it last week.

The report absolved Woelki himself of any neglect of his legal duty with respect to abuse victims. He subsequently said he made mistakes in past cases involving sexual abuse allegations but made clear he had no intention of resigning.

Woelki infuriated many local Catholics by citing legal concerns to keep under wraps a first report on how local church officials reacted when priests were accused of sexual abuse. He commissioned the new report — an 800-page investigation based on church files and put together by a German law firm.

A pair of papal envoys were dispatched to Cologne in June to investigate possible mistakes by senior church officials in handling past sexual abuse cases and the overall situation in the church there.

As a result of their findings, Francis decided to reject resignation offers by two auxiliary bishops in Cologne, the Vatican said. As for Woelki, there was no indication that he acted illegally or that he tried to cover anything up by holding back the first report on church officials' response, it added. The Vatican also stressed Woelki's “determination” to work through the abuse scandal.

However, it pointed to “major errors, particularly at the communication level” on Woelki's part. “That contributed significantly to a crisis of confidence in the archdiocese that is unsettling many of the faithful,” the Vatican said.

Woelki himself acknowledged mistakes in communication, and said: “I am sorry for that, I regret it.” During Woelki's absence, auxiliary bishop Rolf Steinhaeuser will run the archdiocese as an “apostolic administrator.”

The head of the German Bishops' Conference, who has criticized Woelki's crisis management, said he hopes that a process of reconciliation will start in Cologne. “I can't judge whether this can lead to a fundamentally different situation within a few months,” Limburg Bishop Georg Baetzing said in a statement. Much depends on how Woelki uses his time off, he added.

The head of the influential German lay group ZdK, or Central Committee of German Catholics, said that he couldn't understand the pope's decision to keep Woelki and it prevented a process of renewal. “The instrument of a timeout is not enough,” Thomas Sternberg said. “It is completely unclear what could stand at the end of such a timeout and it is not suited to restoring lost confidence.”

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