The Essen Bishop Overbeck makes public allegations of abuse against Cardinal Franz Hengsbach. The founder of the Ruhr diocese died in 1991.
EAT taz/afp | He is the first German cardinal against whom allegations of abuse have been made: The founding bishop of the Ruhr diocese of Essen, Cardinal Franz Hengsbach, is said to have inflicted sexual violence on several people between the 1950s and 1970s. The incumbent informed about this Essen Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck the public on Tuesday. “In view of the current allegations, it is important to me to encourage other potential victims to come forward: If you have suffered sexual violence at the hands of Cardinal Hengsbach, please contact the designated contact persons in the diocese of Essen,” appealed the bishop.
There are at least three allegations of sexual violence against Hengsbach, who died in 1991, the most recent of which was said to have been made in October 2022. Bishop Overbeck found out about this in March 2023 and then investigated.
Among other things, Hengsbach and his brother Paul – who was also a priest – are said to have sexually abused a minor in the 1950s. Two allegations relate to Hengsbach’s time as Bishop of Essen, one allegation relates to his previous time as auxiliary bishop in Paderborn.
The allegations against Cardinal Hengsbach are directed against one of the most influential theologians in the young Federal Republic. In 1958, Hengsbach became the first bishop of the then newly established Ruhr Diocese of Essen and sided with the miners, especially in times of structural change, which earned him a lot of popularity. He led the diocese for a total of 33 years until 1991. Because of his importance for the German church and the universal church, Pope John Paul II made him a cardinal in 1988. Streets and squares in Essen, Gladbeck and Bottrop are named after him.
Overbeck investigated the allegations
As Overbeck has only now made public, there was already an accusation against Hengsbach in 2011. However, this was withdrawn in 2014. Last fall, a second accusation arose, which is why it has now been published.
A person whose gender was not specified stated that he had suffered a sexual assault by Hengsbach in 1967. Because of this report, Overbeck asked the Essen diocese in the Archdiocese of Paderborn whether there were any further reports about Hengsbach in the files. This has been confirmed – but these allegations have not yet been public.
The allegation of abuse in 1954 was reportedly made in 2011 and forwarded to the Vatican in the same year. “Due to the responsibility of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, I viewed the matter as being processed,” explained Overbeck. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith rated the allegations as implausible at the time.
“In view of the new accusation that I only recently became aware of, I have decided, after consultation with the intervention team and taking all of my knowledge into account, to make the allegations against Franz Hengsbach public,” explained Overbeck. He is aware of “what this decision, which I made after careful consideration of the currently available knowledge, will have on many people.” With this step, Overbeck at least fulfilled the promise that he would be more committed to sexual education abuse will begin in the Catholic Church. He said that in February of this year at the Presentation of an abuse study in the diocese of Essen.
According to the Paderborn diocese, there are two allegations against Paul Hengsbach, the cardinal’s brother. The Paderborn priest, who died in 2018, was confronted with allegations in 2011 of having abused a 16-year-old together with his brother. He vehemently denied this. Although it was noted that the woman remembered clearly, her allegations were not considered plausible.
The diocese explained that this assessment “unfortunately has to be clearly questioned today”. In 2010, another woman accused Paul Hengsbach of sexual abuse, which he also denied. The case was not pursued further and was not reported to Rome. In the meantime, the woman submitted an application for recognition of her suffering, which was approved.
Hengsbach’s name has also been mentioned in connection with the allegations of cover-up of sexual violence by Archbishop Cardinal Ratzinger in Munich – the later Pope Benedict XVI – in June this year. In the scandalous transfer of the multiple perpetrator Priest H., who was transferred several times by dioceses after sexual violence became known – for the first time from Essen to Munich in 1979, this “deal” is said to have been made directly between the two responsible bishops: Bishop Cardinal Franz Hengsbach in Essen and Archbishop Cardinal Ratzinger in Munich. It is said that Hensgbach was also the one who persuaded the parents of the affected boy in Essen not to report Priest H. The new allegations against the cardinal, which have now been made public, so they fit into the picture. But they weigh even more heavily.