Battles of the Archdiocese of Cologne

The Archdiocese of Cologne cannot rest easy: media law suits, affidavits and investigations against the Archbishop. What is at stake and what is the current state of affairs? Questions and answers about the legal disputes on the Rhine.

Lawsuits against the "Bild" newspaper, affidavits, investigations into false statements - the legal tug-of-war surrounding Cologne Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki is never-ending. KNA gives an overview of what is at stake.

What started the legal wrangling?

Cardinal Woelki felt misrepresented by several reports in the "Bild" newspaper about his handling of abuse cases. He took action against what he saw as "dishonouring false reporting" with interim injunctions. He has been successful in several cases against the Axel Springer publishing house, but has also had to put up with some of the paper's statements.

What are the current proceedings about?

In the press law proceedings, Woelki is suing against reports on two cases. One is about a priest he promoted who had sexual contact with a 16-year-old prostitute in 2001, which was not a punishable offence at the time. The archbishop is defending himself against the "Bild" report that he knew about incriminating documents when he was promoted in 2017. The documents in question are a police warning against the clergyman's involvement in youth work and a transcript of a conversation in which a man made allegations of abuse against the priest. The archbishop claims that he had only heard about the earlier sexual contact with the prostitute and about "other rumours", by which he means unproven allegations.

The other case concerns abuse allegations against the ex-president of the children's missionary organisation "Die Sternsinger", Winfried Pilz, who died in 2019. The clergyman spent his retirement in the diocese of Dresden-Meissen, which had already not been informed about the allegations by Woelki's predecessor, Cardinal Joachim Meisner. "Bild" wrote that Woelki had decided against making the notification. The cardinal rejects this: he had known nothing about the Pilz case.

What is the state of the proceedings?

In the case of the promoted priest, the Cologne Regional Court ruled in favour of Woelki at the end of March. According to the judgement of the 28th civil chamber responsible for press matters, "Bild" is not allowed to write that Woelki knew the contents of the incriminating documents at the time of the promotion. The Axel Springer publishing house announced that it would appeal against the judgement. In the Pilz case, too, the Cologne Regional Court initially ruled in favour of Woelki. However, the main proceedings are still pending; the oral hearing is scheduled for October.

Why is the public prosecutor's office also investigating Woelki?

The cardinal has supported his positions with three affidavits. With regard to both the Pilz case and the promoted priest, the Cologne public prosecutor's office received complaints against the archbishop for possible false affirmation in lieu of an oath. The prosecuting authority hesitated at first, but then started investigations. False statements in lieu of an oath are punishable by a prison sentence of up to three years or a fine, according to section 156 of the Criminal Code.

What prompted the investigation?

One trigger was the statement by the ex-secretary of former Cologne Cardinal Joachim Meisner that she had already informed Woelki in a telephone conversation around 2010, during his time as auxiliary bishop of Cologne, about what she saw as borderline violating behaviour of the later promoted priest towards young people. However, Meisner's secretary also explained that she had seen neither the police warning nor the personnel file and therefore had not spoken to Woelki about it.

In view of Woelki's statements on the Pilz case, the public prosecutor's office started investigations after a former employee of the personnel department in the Archdiocese of Cologne said in an interview that she had already drawn up a list of accused priests - including Pilz - for a working meeting between her boss and the Archbishop in 2015.

How did Woelki react to this?

Regarding the list, the Archbishop said: "I cannot remember that I received this list, that I took note of this list, that I looked at this list". Thus, he could not remember seeing the name Pilz on this list. He had not dealt with this case personally, which is why he had not decided against reporting it to Dresden. He had only learned of the accusations against the priest at the end of June 2022 - a few days before the Archdiocese of Cologne made the case public.

Regarding the telephone conversation with Meisner's secretary, Woelki said he could not remember it: "For me, this conversation does not exist."

Why is the public prosecutor's office now also investigating a possible perjury, i.e. a false statement in court?

Again because of a complaint. In the proceedings against "Bild", Woelki himself had to appear in court on 28 March. At the end of the almost two-hour trial, Woelki swore his statements at the insistence of the Axel Springer publishing house. According to media reports, two sentences that were not actually necessary for this trial now earn the cardinal the accusation of perjury. This is punishable as a crime with imprisonment of not less than one year or, in less serious cases, with imprisonment of six months to five years.

In the proceedings, the cardinal once again went beyond the statements at issue, saying he was not only unaware of the police warning and the interview transcript when he promoted the priest in 2017. "I have not seen the two documents in question here until today," Woelki added. And: No one had reported anything to him about the interview protocol "until today".

Why do critics of Woelki see this as a false statement?

The ad reporter points to a letter Woelki sent to the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome in November 2018, in which the archbishop reports in detail about all the accusations against the promoted priest and refers to the minutes of the conversation. In addition, a protocol became known according to which last autumn the city and district deans confronted Woelki with his letter to Rome at a two-day meeting and spoke with him about it in detail.

What does Woelki say about the perjury accusation?

The Archdiocese of Cologne rejects the accusation of perjury. Woelki's letter to Rome does indeed refer to the minutes of the conversation, but without taking over details. Therefore, there is no contradiction to his statements in court. The responsible office had prepared the contents of the letter on its own responsibility. "Cardinal Woelki did indeed sign off on the letter. However, he cannot remember having read the letter," the archdiocese said. Moreover, it is no longer comprehensible for Woelki whether the 59 appendices were also presented to him when he signed the letter. The archdiocese did not want to comment on the dean's meeting and the minutes; the contents were confidential.

How does the public react to Woelki's argumentation?

Observers inside and outside the Church do not buy Woelki's claim that he signed the letter to one of the highest-ranking representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, but did not read it.