“In essence, it is important to me to share the responsibility for the catastrophe of the sexual abuse by Church officials over the past decades,” Cardinal Reinhard Marx wrote to Pope Francis in a letter sent on May 21 that was published Friday.
“The investigations and reports of the last ten years have consistently shown that there have been many personal failures and administrative mistakes but also institutional or ‘systemic’ failure,” the letter continued.
Pope Francis has not yet accepted Marx’s resignation, and the Archbishop has been told to remain in post until a decision is made, a statement from the Archdiocese in Munich said. It also noted that Marx has “repeatedly considered resigning from office in recent months.” Marx told journalists on Friday that “the Pope himself wanted to see my letter published.”
“It is painful for me to witness the severe damage to the bishops’ reputation in the ecclesiastical and secular perception which may even be at its lowest,” Marx wrote in the letter. “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.”
In 2018, a report from Germany’s Catholic Church admitted to “at least” 3,677 cases of child sex abuse by the clergy between 1946 and 2014, local media reported at the time. The report, which took four years to assemble, found the victims were mostly boys, more than half of whom were aged 13 or younger. Every sixth case involved a rape and at least 1,670 clergy were involved.
Marx cited that report in his resignation letter, noting that after it was published, he publicly stated that “we have failed.”
“But who is this ‘We’?” he wrote. “I also belong to this circle. And this means that I must also draw personal consequences from this.”
“I believe one possibility to express this willingness to take over responsibility is my resignation,” he added, noting that he hoped his actions could be a “signal for a new beginning, for a new awakening” of the Church.
Survivor Matthias Katsch, who was abused by a priest in Berlin when he was 13, said in a statement to CNN on Friday that Marx’s resignation was an “impressive step” and a “testimony of leadership.”
“We have always pointed out that the abuse crisis of the Catholic Church is not about a number of isolated cases, but that it is a systemic failure. As a leader in this system, Cardinal Marx has now personally decided to take responsibility. This is an exemplary act, as those affected have long called for,” Katsch, who is the spokesperson for the survivor group Eckiger Tisch, said in an published statement.
Katsch added that he was hopeful that Marx’s move would bring survivor-supported initiatives to the fore, including the establishment of a truth commission and compensation for victims.
Marx’s resignation comes amid a growing uproar among German Catholics over the abuse and a steady decline in church membership.
Last week, the Pope sent two senior foreign bishops to investigate the Archdiocese of Cologne, Germany’s largest, over its handling of abuse cases, Reuters reported.
“I will face possible mistakes and failure in individual cases to be investigated in detail which were committed during my terms of office and which will then have to be reviewed and evaluated pursuant to objective criteria,” Marx wrote in his letter.
A report on abuse in the cardinal’s Munich diocese is due later this year.
Earlier this week, the Pope issued the most extensive revision to Catholic Church law in four decades, insisting that bishops take action against clerics who abuse minors and vulnerable adults, commit fraud or attempt to ordain women, Reuters reported.
At a Vatican summit in February 2019, Marx admitted that documents that could have contained proof of clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church were destroyed or never drawn up.
“Files that could have documented the terrible deeds and named those responsible were destroyed or not even created,” Marx said at the summit.
“The stipulated procedures and processes for the prosecution offenses were deliberately not complied with … such standard practices will make it clear that it is not transparency which damages the church, but rather the acts of abuse committed, the lack of transparency, or the ensuing coverup.”
At a later press conference during the summit, Marx said that the information about destroying files came from a study commissioned by German bishops in 2014. The study was “scientific” and did not name the particular church leaders or dioceses in Germany that destroyed the files.
In April of this year, Marx told German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier that he would not be comfortable accepting the “federal cross of merit” – the highest state tribute for individual services to the nation – since survivors of abuse would have found it offensive.
“It is my great request to you not to carry out the award,” he said. “I am convinced that this is the right step with consideration for those who obviously offended by the award, and especially with consideration for those affected.”
Approximately 27% of Germany’s population is Catholic, according to 2019 government figures. Catholics however, have been leaving the church in steady droves over the last 60 years, with the proportion of the Catholic population dropping from 45.9% to 27.2% between 1956 and 2019.
Marx, born in Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia region in 1953, became a priest in 1979 and a bishop in 1996.
In 2007, he was elevated to Archbishop of Munich and Friesing by Pope Benedict XVI, who once also held that position. In 2013, he was appointed to the Council of Cardinals, a group of nine Cardinals who advise the Pope.
He also served as the head of the German Bishops’ Conference – the governing body of the country’s Catholic Church – until last year, when he declined to run for a second term, saying “I think it should be the turn of the younger generation and perhaps it is good if this role changes hands more frequently in future.”
The 67-year-old cardinal has also been a driving force in efforts to modernize the Church in Germany, speaking on the role of women in the clergy, celibacy, sex and identity.
In 2011, he spoke out against the Church’s rhetoric against LGBTQ+ people, saying that the Church had “not always adopted the right tone.” In 2014, he suggested that Church doctrine on family issues was not fully formed.
On Friday, Marx said that the Church must “learn from the crisis” of sex abuse, saying: “We are not yet at the end of the road.”