Did Zollitsch Hire a Pedophile Priest? German Catholic Leader Subject of Criminal Investigation

A German public prosecutor has launched a criminal investigation into the chairman of the Catholic Church's governing body in Germany. Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, prosecutors believe, hired a priest he knew had committed sex crimes.

Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, head of the German Bishops' Conference: Charges "without any foundation."

Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, head of the German Bishops' Conference: Charges "without any foundation."

Public prosecutors in the southern city of Freiburg confirmed Wednesday that they had initiated criminal proceedings against the leader of the Catholic Church in Germany, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, for accessory to abuse of minors by omission. The city's chief public prosecutor, Wolfgang Meier, said the proceedings were the result of charges filed against another man at the end of May.

Investigators believe that Zollitsch -- who in addition to serving as the archbishop of Freiburg is also the chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, the governing body of the Catholic Church in the country -- was aware of sexual assault allegedly committed by a Catholic priest in the town of Birnau on Lake Constance in southern Germany. As the person responsible for human resources in Birnau at the time, Zollitsch is believed to have allowed the hiring of the priest despite the fact that he allegedly had knowledge the man had committed sexual assault. Officials in Freiburg have since turned the case over to their colleagues in Constance, who have jurisdiction over the Birnau area.

Statute of Limitations Could Affect Case

In Constance, prosecutors said they had still not obtained the files in the Zollitsch case. A spokesperson said that if the case against the priest believed to have committed the sexual abuse is dropped because the statute of limitations has already expired, then the same would hold true for the proceedings against Zollitsch.

The office of the archbishop in Freiburg has denied all charges against Zollitsch, saying in a statement that they were "without foundation." "As the personnel manager responsible for the archdiocese back then, Dr. Zollitsch in no way permitted the rehiring of this priest," the statement read. The statement claimed the criminal complaint had been formulated in a "sensationalist" manner aimed at "provoking media interest against the archbishop." Officials claim that, after allegations were brought forward against the priest, Church leaders called for action to be taken against the man. They also claim the parish first learned in 2006 of at least one case of abuse in Birnau during the 1960s.

Archbishop Zollitsch recently advised his colleague Walter Mixa, the former archbishop of Augsburg, who resigned in April over allegations he had beaten children, to "take time off for spiritual contemplation and spatial distance." Mixa had just tendered his resignation to Pope Benedict XVI, who in turn accepted it. A preliminary investigation into Mixa by the public prosecutor in Ingolstadt has since been closed.

In recent months, the Catholic Church in Germany -- as in Ireland, Italy and the United States -- has been deeply shaken by allegations that priests perpetrated sexual and physical abuse against children and youth.

dsl -- with wires


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