Maike Hickson

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Clerical sex-abuse cover-up accusations hit German Bishops’ Conference ex-president

Bishop Zollitsch had allegedly moved several abusing priests into other parishes without making public the misdeeds of these priests.
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Archbishop Robert Zollitsch
Maike Hickson By Maike Hickson

November 12, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – Bishop Stephan Burger, the Archbishop of Freiburg, Germany has now publicly criticized his predecessor and the former President of the German Bishops' Conference, Robert Zollitsch, for his covering up the misdeeds of a priest who abused at least 60 boys.

After meeting with members of the parish of the abuser priest, Archbishop Burger says that Zollitsch should speak with them and apologize to them in person. Upon request from LifeSiteNews, Burger's press office added the information that Zollitsch seems to have covered up for several other abuser priests.

“I have to assume that important things have passed over his [Zollitsch's] desk,” stated Archbishop Burger in an interview with the German television channel SWR last week. “Things were not correctly handled,” he added with reference to his predecessor. Burger spoke here concretely about the case of a Catholic parish in Oberharmersbach.

Father B. abused at least 60 children over the course of more than twenty years, from 1967 until 1991, as the pastor of St. Gallus in Oberharmersbach, Germany. Some of the victims – who were altar boys – were more than 400 times sexually abused. When in 1991, another priest learned about the sexual misbehavior of Father B., Father B. was sent into an early retirement with the instruction to stay away from children. He withdrew quietly from his parish, with the knowledge of then-Father Zollitsch who was at the time the head of the diocesan personnel office and thus responsible for the dealing with such cases. (He was to become the Archbishop of Freiburg only in 2003, and remained there until his retirement in 2013.)

However, since Zollitsch did not inform the parish, nor the state authorities, of the crimes this priest had committed – the priest threatened to kill himself if his offenses would become known – the uninformed parishioners of Oberharmersbach continued to send their sons to Father B. for visits in his retirement place. As has been confirmed, even after his retirement, this priest continued to abuse boys for more years.

When, in 1995, one of the abuse victims finally went to the police, Father B., as threatened, did take his own life. However, Archbishop Zollitsch first claimed only to have known about his misdeeds in 1995, something he later had to recant and correct. But still, in 1995, he wrote a letter in which he advised the recipients to keep the story unknown. As it became known already in 2010, the priest who had discovered the abuse of his nephew by Father B. had then met, in 1992, in person with Father Zollitsch who himself did not act upon the revelations. The uncle of the abuse victim commented in 2010, saying “I think things were simply covered up. One wanted to avoid a scandal, sacrificing those who are the weakest.” Today, Zollitsch is not available to the media for comment.

Even after the scandal became more widely known in 2010 – Archbishop Zollitsch finally came to acknowledge some of his mistakes and made a general apology without ever visiting with the abuse victims – Archbishop Burger now says that the case of Oberharmersbach has never been “researched and analyzed in detail.” He also now says that “in the past, personnel files of purported offenders have been manipulated.” He now thinks that Zollitsch should once more apologize to the parishioners of that town. In a recent 8 November interview, Archbishop Burger, after visiting the St. Gallus parish, said about his conversation with members of the parish: “Thereby I realized that it would be important for many of the concerned persons to hear once more a word from the retired Archbishop Zollitsch. That he would show that he, too, had made mistakes.”

However, when asked about the fact that the current pastor of that parish, Father Bonaventura Gerner, called upon Burger to forbid Zollitsch any public appearances, Burger stated that he may continue to give talks and celebrate public Masses. “He is free to do that,” the current archbishop said.

LifeSiteNews reached out last week to the press office of Archbishop Burger, asking to learn more about Archbishop emeritus Zollitsch, for example whether he had been involved in the cover-up of other abuse cases. (One well-placed source in Germany spoke with LifeSiteNews on condition of anonymity and told us that Zollitsch, as bishop, has moved several abusing priests into other parishes without making public the misdeeds of these priests.)

The press office responded, saying that “Archbishop Zollitsch himself has already admitted that, in his own tenure as head of the diocesan personnel office, there had been wrong decisions made when dealing with clerical abuse which today would be assessed as cover-ups. The cases in Oberharmersbach were from their extent certainly the gravest ones. However, there are further indications that, also on other occasions, cover-ups have taken place. This needs to be further examined.” The diocesan press speaker, Mrs. Lisa Maria Pelsker, also pointed to a newly established commission (consisting of internal and external counselors) which advises the archdiocese with regard to measures and strategies concerning abuse. This commission might very well ask for a “thorough examination of the whole procedure with regard to transfer [of priests] and cover-up. A more thorough answer could therefore only be given at a later date,” she added.

LifeSiteNews also asked about the responsibility of Archbishop Oskar Saier – under whom Zollitsch worked as the head of the personnel office. Saier was the archbishop of Freiburg from 1978 until 2002, and he died in 2008. Mrs. Pelsker responded, saying that the cover-up of the abuses by Father B. clearly took place “under the responsibility of Archbishop Saier.” However, the archdiocese does not know whether he “had been informed about such incidents.”

Archbishop Zollitsch is known for his progressive views, and he was close to another former President of the German Bishops' Conference, Cardinal Karl Lehman. Zollitsch had succeeded him in 2008 and remained the head of the German bishops until 2014. As such, he introduced in 2013 a sort of “test balloon” after the election of Pope Francis and thereby introduced some guidelines in his own Freiburg diocese allowing some “remarried” divorcees to receive Holy Communion. He only later said that the guidelines were published prematurely, but then added that they “go in the right direction.”

In 2008, Zollitsch gave an interview to the German magazine Der Spiegel, in which he made it clear that he does not oppose civil same-sex partnerships. “But when there are people with such a tendency [homosexuality], then the state can establish certain rules for them,” he then also explained.

In that same Spiegel interview, Archbishop Zollitsch also admitted that he himself would be open for the idea to abolish priestly celibacy, but added that this would be a “revolution” in the Church which would meet with much resistance.

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Maike Hickson

Dr. Maike Hickson was born and raised in Germany. She holds a PhD from the University of Hannover, Germany, after having written in Switzerland her doctoral dissertation on the history of Swiss intellectuals before and during World War II. She now lives in the U.S. and is married to Dr. Robert Hickson, and they have been blessed with two beautiful children. She is a happy housewife who likes to write articles when time permits.

Dr. Hickson published in 2014 a Festschrift, a collection of some thirty essays written by thoughtful authors in honor of her husband upon his 70th birthday, which is entitled A Catholic Witness in Our Time.

Hickson has closely followed the papacy of Pope Francis and the developments in the Catholic Church in Germany, and she has been writing articles on religion and politics for U.S. and European publications and websites such as LifeSiteNews, OnePeterFive, The Wanderer, Rorate Caeli, Catholicism.org, Catholic Family News, Christian Order, Notizie Pro-Vita, Corrispondenza Romana, Katholisches.info, Der Dreizehnte,  Zeit-Fragen, and Westfalen-Blatt.