ROME – After months of public fallout over the reported mishandling of clerical abuse cases in the German Archdiocese of Cologne, a crisis which some German Catholics have cited as a reason to leave the Church, the Vatican has launched an apostolic visitation.

In a May 28 statement, the German bishops’ conference announced that “Pope Francis has ordered an apostolic visitation of the Archdiocese of Cologne.”

Those tapped to oversee the investigation are Cardinal Anders Arborelius of Stockholm, Sweden, and Bishop Johannes van den Hende of Rotterdam, president of the Dutch bishops’ conference.

According to the statement, the two prelates will begin their inquiry in the first half of June, and, among other things, will seek to obtain “a comprehensive picture of the complex pastoral situation” in the archdiocese.

As part of the probe, they will seek to identify potential mistakes made by Cologne’s archbishop, Cardinal Ranier Maria Woelki. The actions of Archbishop Stefan Hesse of Hamburg, who served as Cologne archdiocese’s vicar general from 2012-2015, and Cologne auxiliary bishops Dominikus Schwaderlapp and Bishop Ansgar Puff, will also be investigated.

For months, the Archdiocese of Cologne – home to nearly 2 million Catholics, making it the largest diocese in the German-speaking world, and reportedly one of the world’s most wealthy – has been plagued by abuse-related crises which has fueled exits from the church amid charges of mishandling of abuse cases and coverup by several top officials.

In January 2019, Woelki engaged the Westpfahl Spilker Wastl law firm in Munich for an in-depth examination of the Archdiocese of Cologne’s personnel files dating as far back as 1975, in a bid to shed light on systemic failures in handling abuse cases.

Initially Woelki promised to publish the results of that query, however, after legal experts advising the archdiocese raised concern over the methodology, Woelki shelved it and enlisted another Cologne-based legal expert, Björn Gercke, to write a new report.

Woelki then faced enormous backlash and calls for his own resignation for failing to publish the findings of the original report, and he was also accused of coverup for failing to notify the Vatican about a sexual abuse allegation involving a priest after he was appointed to Cologne in 2014. The case involved a priest known as “Pastor O,” with whom Woelki worked during his time as a deacon.

An alleged victim contacted the archdiocese in 2010 saying the priest had sexually abused him as a child in the 1970s. The victim was compensated €15,000 ($18,175) in 2011, and Woekli was accused of failing to take action against the priest after reviewing the personnel files in 2015.

According to the archdiocese, Woelki attempted to conduct an investigation, but said the inquiry difficult to conduct because of the poor health of the priest in question and a lack of cooperation from the victim.

Facing the accusations of coverup, Woelki in December 2020 asked Pope Francis to directly intervene, saying in a statement released by the archdiocese that “In order to clarify the canonical accusations against me, I am asking the Holy Father [Pope Francis] to examine this matter.”

“The fact remains: failures in dealing with sexual violence must be disclosed, regardless of the person against whom they were made. This also includes me,” he said at the time.

Woelki published the findings of the Gercke report March 18, admitting that he had made mistakes in his handling of the “Pastor O” affair.

During a press conference after the report was published, he noted that the report had found no wrongdoing on his part in the case of “Pastor O,” and that he had acted according to the law.

“But it’s not just about doing the right thing, it’s about doing everything humanly possible. And I didn’t do that,” he said at the time, admitting that he should have notified Rome about the case.

Both Hesse and Puff offered their resignations after the Gercke report came out, citing several instances in which they dropped the ball.

In the report’s findings, Hesse was accused of 11 instances of mishandling abuse cases, some of which entailed failing to enact proper Church procedures to clarify the accusations and many of which involved failure to inform public prosecutors and the Vatican.

Hesse in March offered his resignation to Pope Francis and requested “immediate release” from all duties and was granted a leave of absence.

On 19th March, Puff was temporarily suspended of his duties after requesting the move from Woekli given the report’s findings regarding his own conduct. According to the report, during his time as head of personnel in Cologne from 2012-2013, Puff violated disclosure rules in one case.

Schwaderlapp, who was accused in the report of neglecting his duty to relay abuse allegations to proper Church and state authorities in eight separate cases, has also been suspended.

In a show of just how divided the Catholic community in Cologne has become, a group of laypeople in the archdiocese earlier this year called for a local synod to address the ongoing abuse-related crisis.

Tim-O. Kurzbach, president of the Cologne archdiocesan council of Catholics, said in April that, “We must make every effort to reestablish a genuine dialogue between the cardinal, senior members of the diocesan leadership and the grassroots of the church.”

According to German Catholic news agency KNA, the archdiocesan council, which represents laypeople, voiced hope that a synod would help improve communication and lead to “a new beginning based on sincerity and honesty.”

It is unclear yet whether Pope Francis will accept the resignations of Hesse, Puff and Schwaderlapp. Mostly likely, he will wait to make his decision until the apostolic visitation is over and he’s had a chance to review the findings.

The Gercke report and the inquiry in the Cologne archdiocese are the latest episodes in a saga of abuse-related crises that have gripped Germany for years, but especially since the German Bishops’ Conference in 2018 released a national study on the sexual abuse of minors committed by Church leaders and staff.

That study found that some 1,670 clerics, most of whom were priests, were accused of committing sexual abuse between 1946-2014 with an estimated 3,677 victims, although the actual number is believed to be much higher, considering not all victims report abuse and that the study did not have access to documents in other Catholic institutions, such as schools.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen