ROME – A slew of bishops and experts in theology and child protection have voiced admiration for German Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Germany after he announced his request on Friday to resign as Archbishop of Munich, calling for more responsibility to be taken for failures in handling the clerical sexual abuse crisis.
In a letter published June 4, Marx said he asked Pope Francis to accept his resignation as the Archbishop of Munich and Freising over what he said was the “catastrophe” of the abuse crisis and the “systemic failure” of the Church to address it.
Although he himself has not been accused of any wrongdoing, Marx said, “We as bishops have to make clear that we also represent the institution of the Church as a whole.”
In a June 4 statement, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, president of the German Bishops’ Conference, voiced “great respect” for Marx’s decision to submit his resignation, saying Marx did “pioneering work for the Church in German and around the world” during his time leading the conference since 2014.
“With his step, Cardinal Marx wants to set an example and personally take on the institutional responsibility that the Church has to bear in connection with the cases of sexual abuse and its cover-up,” he said.
Abuse scandals have exposed “systemic weaknesses in the church that also call for systemic responses. A purely legal review and administrative changes are not enough,” Bätzing said, noting that Marx’s decision was a “personal response” to the failures of the past.
Noting how Marx in his letter reaffirmed his support for the German church’s “synodal way,” which was initially launched to help Germany’s bishops iron out a path of reform in the wake of the country’s clerical sexual abuse crisis, Bätzing said the bishops must continue on this path.
“The Synodal Way was created to search for systemic responses to the crisis. The basic theological discussions that determine the Synodal Way are therefore an essential and important part in this process,” he said.
Bätzing said Marx’s decision to offer his resignation is understandable, and “makes it clear that the Church in Germany must continue the Synodal Path that has begun.”
Similarly, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE), a position Marx also held 2012 to 2018, voiced his “profound respect” after hearing of Marx’s decision.
“The Cardinal’s decision must be the result of a profound and courageous inner reflection, towards which we must have deep respect,” Hollerich said, saying the decision “mirrors the seriousness that has always characterized his pastoral activity.”
Reflecting on Marx’s time as president of COMECE, Hollerich said called predecessor’s contribution “extremely precious,” saying that COMECE under Marx’s leadership became “a more dynamic actor in the dialogue with the institutions of the European Union as a contributor to human-centered policies in support of the common good.”
Cardinal Ranier Maria Woelki of Cologne, which is currently undergoing massive upheaval due to the abuse crisis, also weighed in.
On May 28 the Archdiocese of Cologne announced that it would be undergoing an apostolic visitation into both its own handling of past abuse cases, and the actions of individual bishops, including Woelki, 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.
In his June 4 statement, Woelki also voiced respect for Marx, saying the decision to submit his resignation is “his personal consequence in these difficult times for the Catholic Church.”
Pointing to the trouble in his own backyard, Woelki noted how after facing allegations of mishandling abuse cases last fall, he asked the pope in December 2020 to directly intervene by launching an investigation into the Cologne archdiocese and his own personal handling of the abuse crisis.
“With that I confidently placed my fate in the hands of the Pope,” Woelki said, and highlighted the fact that he recently published the results of an independent inquiry into the Archdiocese of Cologne’s handling of abuse cases, which was conducted by Cologne-based legal expert Björn Gercke.
In the so-called Gercke Report, “names were named and those responsible drew the necessary conclusions,” Woelki said, saying Pope Francis “responded to the report and my request” by sending visitors to evaluate the broader situation and his own actions.
“This is a direct commission from the Holy Father for cooperation, which I will responsibly accompany at the end!” he said.
Professor Thomas Schüller, a member of the theology faculty of the University of Münster, agreed that Marx’s decision was a “sensational step” in which he took “personal responsibility for his failures as Bishop of Trier and as Archbishop of Munich-Freising in terms of coming to terms with sexual abuse.”
“On the other hand, he attests to the German Church and his episcopal confreres that they have reached a dead end. He would like to see responsibility, conversion and the courage for real reforms,” Schüller said.
He suggested that Marx was taking a shot at Woelki in his statement when he said, “Inspections of the files and research regarding specific mistakes and failures of the past, including the question of the respective responsibilities, are inevitable components of dealing with the past but they do not constitute the entire renewal.”
“This message also goes directly to Pope Francis: If you want Francis reforms, then no stone is left unturned when it comes to sexualized violence in the Church. Be as brave as I am and finally initiate reforms,” Schüller said.
Each of Germany’s bishops, “will now have to be measured by this sovereign and great willingness to resign from office and thus to take on responsibility,” he said, adding, “Cardinal Reinhard Marx deserves great respect and thanks for his decision.”
Speaking to Italian newspaper La Reppublica, German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, head of the Pontifical Gregorian University’s newly-minted “Institute of Anthropology, Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care,” also praised Marx’s decision.
“It was a great [step] to be admired, because it was personal and difficult to put into action,” Zollner said, calling the move “a demanding gesture made in the face of delicate and important issues, such as the systemic crisis, as the cardinal himself defines it, of the Church regarding sexual abuse committed by priests on minors.”
“What Cardinal Marx tells everyone is that a new approach is needed. The crisis, if systemic, cannot be resolved by going forward as has always been done, rather a change of pace is needed,” he said.
Recognizing that “a systemic crisis is underway” is a new step that’s been taken, Zollner said, adding that the bishops together must “ask for a different step so that the problem is solved once and for all.”
Zollner insisted that Marx’s request to step down has had no impact on he and Pope Francis’s relationship, given that Marx is one of the pope’s top advisors and chair of the Council for the Economy, saying “there is full harmony” between Marx and the pope.
“What he tells everyone is that the path that Francis is taking is fine, but it must be pursued with more force,” Zollner said, insisting that this path was defined during the February 2019 Vatican summit on child protection.
During that gathering, which was attended by the heads of bishops’ conferences worldwide, Pope Francis stressed the need to take personal responsibility, Zollner, who was part of the organizing committee for that event, said, adding, “Marx made that assumption his own yesterday. ”
What Marx did, he said, “is a message to Germany and to the Church there: the way is to fight abuses with responsibility, and without hesitation.”