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ROME – Earlier this week, the troubled German Archdiocese of Cologne announced that the Vatican has agreed to conduct an external audit into its contracts once the archbishop of the diocese returns from a papal-mandated sabbatical.

The audit will investigate canonical legality in the awarding of contracts over the past ten years, a diocesan statement said.

In December, the Archdiocese of Cologne announced its intention to carry out an external audit to clarify “whether there have recently been omissions in canon law when awarding contracts,” saying the decision to move forward with the inquiry was agreed on by the archdiocesan property council and cathedral chapter, and the current administrator for the Cologne archdiocese, Auxiliary Bishop Rolf Steinhäuser.

Steinhäuser informed the Vatican of their request for an audit in Cologne, and earlier this week the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops sent a letter to the archdiocese saying they had agreed to the audit, but that it would take place only once the current archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Ranier Woekli, returns from his sabbatical in March.

For over a year, Woelki has been a hugely controversial figure in Cologne due to widespread criticism of his handling of the clerical sexual abuse crisis.

Much of this criticism was related to Woelki’s decision not to publish the results of an in-depth examination conducted in January 2019 of the Archdiocese of Cologne’s personnel files dating back to the 1970s in an attempt to identify systemic failures in handling clerical abuse cases.

After initially pledging to publish the results of that inquiry, Woelki later walked back on that promise when legal experts raised concern over the methodology of the investigation. Woelki then enlisted a Cologne-based legal expert to conduct a second review and issue a new report but did not publish the results of the first query.

That second report, conducted by legal expert Björn Gercke and which was published in March 2021, 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.

While the report absolved Woelki from any allegations of neglect in his duties in respect to abuse victims, public backlash against him continued and he submitted his letter of resignation to Pope Francis.

In September Pope Francis recognized that Woelki had made “major errors” in communication throughout the process, but decided to leave Woelki in office despite the criticism he faced, mandating that he take a spiritual “timeout” from his duties overseeing the Cologne Archdiocese.

That sabbatical began in October 2021 and is set to end in March.

Around the same time, Pope Francis rejected the resignation offer of another German prelate, Archbishop Stefan Hesse of Hamburg, who was previously a senior church official in Cologne and who was faulted for 11 cases of neglecting his duty.

Calls for an external audit into Cologne’s finances were first triggered by the cost of the two legal reports the archdiocese had commissioned and payouts to communications consultants that totaled some 2.8 million euros ($3.1 million).

According to the archdiocesan communique, “In the archbishopric, in connection with the high costs of the independent investigation into sexual violence, initial indications had emerged that contracts might not have been awarded in accordance with canon law.”

As part of the audit, older contracts dating farther back than 10 years will also be examined with the overall goal of identifying “what conclusions are to be drawn and how administrative processes can be improved,” the communique said.

The initial review of older archdiocesan contracts includes the acquisition of furniture for conference houses and various technological purchases.

“The budgets for this have been properly registered, and according to current knowledge, no financial damage has occurred,” the archdiocese said.

This audit is the latest in a saga of abuse-related scandals that have scarred the Catholic Church in Germany for years. The scandals became more acute after 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 Church representatives, 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 given that 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