ROME — Germany’s most prominent Catholic leader, an adviser to Pope Francis, has offered his resignation to the pontiff in a lengthy letter, citing his personal role in the “catastrophe” of sexual abuse.
“I feel that through remaining silent, neglecting to act and over-focusing on the reputation of the Church I have made myself personally guilty and responsible,” Cardinal Reinhard Marx wrote to the pope in a letter published Friday.
Marx’s offer was unusually public and self-reflective, given the opaque manner in which Catholic prelates usually step down.
The Vatican has not said whether the pope will accept Marx’s resignation as archbishop of Munich and Freising. He has been asked by the pope to stay on the job until a decision has been made, Marx said in a separate statement.
Still, the offer by itself represents the most significant fallout to date from investigations of abuse within in the German Catholic Church.
Germany’s understanding of the scale of the problem grew in 2018, with a report, commissioned by the national bishops’ conference, documenting more than 3,600 cases of abuse by 1,600 members of the clergy over seven decades.
Marx did not detail any specific mishandling of cases in his letter to the pope. But in April he declined a federal award of merit, according to the Catholic News Agency, after abuse survivors criticized him for not investigating alleged cases when he was bishop of Trier from 2001 until 2007. The survivors also said Marx had failed to publish a 2010 report on sexual violence in the archdiocese of Munich.
Marx wrote to the pope that the reputation of bishops in Germany seemed to be at a “low point.” He said the church was in crisis and at a seeming “dead end.” Marx said it had become increasingly clear to him that there must be personal consequences for “systemic” failure.
“It is also not right to simply link these problems largely on past times and former Church officials,” Marx, 67, wrote.
Marx is among the cardinals on Francis’s Council of Cardinals, known as the C9 advisory council, and he was given a prominent speaking role at a Vatican summit in 2019 aiming to address abuse and cover-up within the church. He has a reputation as a progressive leader, and several years ago he helped launch a discussion — still ongoing — among German Catholic leaders to reassess church teachings on sexuality, the role of women and clerical celibacy.
Because of that, for conservatives in the Vatican and beyond, Germany has become the wild card of the universal church — a place where the leaders are likeliest to push away from traditional teachings.
But domestically, the problem is more basic: German Catholics are furious about abuse, and the nation’s church is reeling from multiple abuse-related inquiries.
Though Catholic prelates in various countries have lost their positions because of abuse, those moves have normally come under enormous public pressure. Marx’s decision was far more surprising.
“It is an impressive step that finally a bishop in Germany speaks in the first person and takes responsibility,” Matthias Katsch, spokesperson for the German victims’ association Eckiger Tisch, said in a statement. He called Marx’s offer to step down a “personal testimony of leadership” and added that he hopes the church will now take steps to address the concerns of victims.
Marx’s resignation could be a tipping point, said Gregor-Maria Hoff, a theologian who is consulting with the German bishops on their meetings about church teaching and policy. Hoff said Germany could be in for the kind of turmoil that hit Chile, where in 2018 all the country’s bishops offered their resignations en masse to the pope.
“They have to clear the table,” Hoff said. “This is the chance, in a spiritual sense, to make a new start. But not under the same conditions.”
In his letter to the pope, Marx mentioned his 2018 comments, after the release of the major abuse study, in which he said that “we have failed.”
“But who is this ‘We’? In fact, I also belong to this circle,” Marx wrote.
Mechthild Heil, who chairs the Catholic Women’s Association of Germany, called Marx’s resignation “the right step.”
“We have always demanded this consequence from the responsible bishops,” she said in a statement. “We too see that the official church is at a dead end in many ways.”
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The Washington Post’s Luisa Beck in Berlin contributed to this report.