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Conservative priest resigns from CDF under liberal media pressure, ahead of Vatican sex abuse summit

Diane Montagna Diane Montagna Follow Diane

[Editor’s note: This article was updated at 11:00 am EST on Jan 30, 2019]

ROME, January 29, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – A conservative priest and theologian has resigned from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), amid allegations that he made advances toward a consecrated woman during confession in 2009. 

But contrary to media reports claiming the accusation was “brought forward” in recent months, the priest was exonerated of the charge six years ago – following a Vatican investigation — and is emphatically maintaining his innocence. 

Recent media reports

On Jan. 21, Vatican Insider and the National Catholic Reporter questioned why Austrian priest and theologian, Father Hermann Geissler, 53, had retained his position as head of the CDF’s doctrinal section. Why, they asked, has he remained in his role only two months after Doris Wagner, 34, a former member of the same religious family to which Geissler belongs, publicly claimed he had made advances toward her during confession? 

But on Jan. 28, the independent Catholic daily Die Tagespost reported that the Vatican’s promoter of justice had investigated Wagner’s allegation in 2013 and ruled in favor of Fr. Geissler. 

A senior Vatican prelate has confirmed to LifeSite the accuracy of this latter report.

Meanwhile, the timing of Fr. Geissler’s resignation from this key doctrinal role at the CDF raises an important question: who will Pope Francis choose to fill the post before the upcoming Vatican summit on clerical sex abuse in February?

Fr. Geissler resigns

On Tuesday, Jan. 29 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a statement saying that Fr. Geissler had resigned in order to “limit the damage already done to the Congregation and to his Community.” 

Fr. Geissler is a member of the Familia spiritualis Opus religious community, more commonly known as “The Work” [Das Werk].

Regarded as “conservative,” Fr. Geissler has served as a CDF official since 1993, and in 2009 was appointed as director of its doctrinal section. Last year, Geissler opposed the German bishops’ decision to allow Holy Communion for some Protestant spouses.

According to the Jan. 29 statement, Fr. Geissler “affirms that the accusation made against him is untrue, and asks that the canonical process already initiated continue.” It further noted that “he also reserves the right for possible civil legal action.” 

The Die Tagespost report

According to the Jan. 28 article in Die Tagespost, Fr. Geissler “has always denied” Wagner’s accusation that he made advances towards her in confession, “and he continues to deny it now.”   

The German daily said he resigned because he could “no longer withstand increasing pressure” and wanted to spare the CDF and his religious community of damage.

The report further noted that Doris Wagner, who was a consecrated member of “The Work” until 2010, has been leveling serious accusations against the community for years. Her main accusation is that the community’s formation process fosters abuse, the German weekly said.

According to Wagner’s own account, she had sexual relations with two priests of the religious congregation, Die Tagespost recounts. Wagner later called the relationship with the first priest “rape,” but later married the second priest, it said. 

“Both German and the Austrian public prosecutor’s offices have said the accusation of rape [against the first priest] is unfounded, because it was a matter of consensual sexual intercourse between two adults,” the German weekly continued.

Consensual or not, the question does remain if the priest was ever disciplined.

Despite the ruling, in 2016 Wagner published a book titled “Nicht mehr ich” (Not me anymore), in which she continued to describe the first relationship as rape and detailed her struggle to “regain her strength” and “leave the community.” According to Die Tagespost, Wagner did not mention her relationship with the second priest, to whom she is still married. Her surname, in fact, is now Reisinger.

The report noted that Wagner also accused Fr. Geissler of having “crossed boundaries”during confession. Initially, it said, she only made allusions to the accusations. But in September 2018, she spoke to the German weekly Die Zeit, which identified the priest as “Hermann.” 

Wagner’s testimony

Then, in late November 2018, Wagner openly accused a “capo ufficio” [office head] of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of having propositioned her and “tried to kiss” her during confession. 

Her testimony came at a ‘Voices of Faith’ conference in Rome entitled: ‘Overcoming Silence, Women’s Voices in the Abuse Crisis.’ The dissenting activist group “aims to bring together leaders in the Vatican with the global Catholic community” to convince the Church’s heirarcy to “open governance and ministerial roles” to women in “structures of authority at all levels.”

Their stated goal by 2030 is that “30% of leadership positions at the global level of the Roman Catholic Church open to and be filled by women.”

Following Wagner’s testimony at the Rome conference, the French agency La Croix identified Fr. Geissler as the only official who belonged to the same religious community. Other agencies quickly ran with the story.

Wagner later told Vatican Insider and the National Catholic Reporter that she had reported Geissler’s conduct to the CDF in 2014 with the help of a canon lawyer, but with little effect. 

“I got a response that stated that Fr. Geissler had admitted, and had asked pardon, and was admonished,” she said. “And that was all.”

Wagner added it was “ridiculous” and “symbolic of the church’s attitude towards perpetrators” that Geissler remained in the high-ranking position at the the CDF. 

However, she did not offer proof that the specific allegations which she openly made against Fr. Geissler at the Rome conference were the content of what he allegedly “admitted.”

Meanwhile, LifeSite has learned that sources close to the case say Fr. Geissler has “never admitted” to such accusations.

Previous exoneration

Informed sources also told Die Tagespost on Jan. 28 that there is no evidence for Wagner’s accusation against Fr. Geissler. 

The report by the independent Catholic daily said that what happened between Fr. Geissler and then Sr. Doris was already investigated six years ago by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The case was handled by the then promoter of justice for serious crimes at the time, Monsignor Charles Scicluna, and by then Undersecretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Monsignor Damiano Marzotto. 

Die Tagespost said the investigation ruled in favor of Fr. Geissler, and Pope Francis was informed. 

Timing of Fr. Geissler’s resignation

Observers told Die Tagespost that the timing of Fr. Geissler’s resignation is connected to the “tense situation” in Rome ahead of the Vatican summit on clerical sex abuse in February.

But the timing of the resignation also raises an obvious question: who will Pope Francis appoint to lead the doctrinal section of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ahead of the February summit?

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