Embattled German cardinal offers resignation after 5-month absence
Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, Archbishop of Cologne, makes a statement in the garden of the Archbishop's House. German Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, who was criticized in the past for not publicly releasing a report on child sexual abuse, said on Wednesday he had offered his resignation to Pope Francis. Rolf Vennenbernd/dpa
Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, Archbishop of Cologne, makes a statement in the garden of the Archbishop's House. German Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, who was criticized in the past for not publicly releasing a report on child sexual abuse, said on Wednesday he had offered his resignation to Pope Francis. Rolf Vennenbernd/dpa

German Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, who was criticized in the past for not publicly releasing a report on child sexual abuse, said on Wednesday he had offered his resignation to Pope Francis.

The pope would decide his response in due course, Woelki said. In the meantime, he intended to return to his office as archbishop of the western city of Cologne on Wednesday after a five-month sabbatical.

The leave of absence was approved by the Vatican, which accused Woelki of serious mistakes in his handling of reports of sexual abuse in the Cologne archdiocese.

In 2020, Woelki decided not to publish an expert opinion by the law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl on the handling of allegations of sexual abuse by diocesan officials, sparking an uproar and revealing deep divisions between Woelki and other church officials.

He cited legal reasons for not releasing the information, which he himself had commissioned.

A subsequent report by a different law firm and released in March last year released revealed hundreds of cases of suspected abuse in the Cologne archdiocese.

The reports and the surrounding furore were part of the German Church's reckoning with the crimes committed by priests.

Another report released this year and focussing on the Munich archdiocese revealed similarly shocking crimes, including allegations that a former pope, Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, had not acted to prevent a known abuser from working with children.

In a letter to followers in his archdiocese on Wednesday, Woelki, who had steadfastly refused to resign during the controversy over the Cologne reports, asked them to give him a second chance.

He wanted to meet as many of them as possible in the coming weeks and months, he said.

"I am sorry that this time has been such a difficult time for many people in our Church," he wrote.

He explained his 5-month absence by saying he had suffered a kind of burn-out. "I reached a point of physical and mental exhaustion."

Critics have suggested that nothing has changed during Woelki's absence and that the church still needs to take more far-reaching action following the abuse allegations.

Woelki had previously refused to resign despite pressure from officials throughout his archdiocese to step down.

Religious expert and lawyer Thomas Schüller dold dpa that Woelki could now be seen as an "archbishop on probation" after his return and his offer of resignation to Pope Francis.

Two Apostolic Visitors - the Pope's authorized representatives - have been preparing a new report on the situation in the archdiocese of Cologne. This report is unlikely to be openly published.