In separate announcements, the dioceses of Essen and Paderborn in Germany revealed investigations into allegations of sexual abuse involving Cardinal Franz Hengsbach (1910-1991) in 2011 and 2022.
Cardinal Franz Hengsbach Accused of Sexual Abuse
Throughout his career, Hengsbach faced accusations of sexually abusing three individuals, at least two of whom were young women, including one who was a minor.
The first accusation dates back to 1954 when Hengsbach served as an assistant bishop in the city of Paderborn. The alleged victim, a 16-year-old girl, initially came forward with these accusations in 2011, a decade after Hengsbach’s death.
Additionally, accusations of abuse were leveled against Hengsbach’s brother, Paul Hengsbach, who was also a priest. Paul vehemently denied these allegations until his death in 2018.
Initial Church Investigation and Reevaluation
Initially, the General Vicariate of Paderborn reviewed the case and then forwarded it to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. Both entities dismissed the allegations as “implausible” and declined to offer compensation to the accusers.
However, officials in Paderborn have since stated that, upon reevaluating the case, they found that the initial assessment was “clearly questionable.”
Essen Diocese Takes the Allegations Seriously
The second set of allegations is related to Hengsbach’s tenure in Essen, where he served as the founding bishop from 1958 until his death in 1991.
The reported abuse occurred in 1967 when Hengsbach was the bishop of Essen. Both dioceses have invited any victims to come forward during the investigation.
The Essen Diocese described the allegations as “serious.” The current Bishop of Essen, Franz-Josef Overbeck, stated that he first learned of the accusations in March and pledged transparency.
Johannes Norpoth, spokesperson for the advisory board of the Conference of German Bishops’ Victims, welcomed news of the investigation. In an interview with the Catholic News Agency (KNA), Norpoth emphasized that there was no reason to doubt the accusers’ statements and praised their courage in confronting a “legendary figure in the Ruhr industrial region” in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
Norpoth accused both Essen and Paderborn of mishandling the Hengsbach allegations in 2010 and 2011, asserting that neither diocese had taken the accusations seriously.
If proven true, Hengsbach, who was elevated to cardinal in 1988, would become the first high-ranking cleric in Germany to be found guilty of sexual abuse.
The victim advocacy group “Eckiger Tisch” has called for the formation of an independent commission to investigate the initial inquiries, including who led the investigations, why they were terminated, and whether Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, who, after leading the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, became Pope Benedict XVI (2005-2013), was connected to the case’s dismissal.
“Ultimately, there must be an end to the Church or its agencies trying to resolve and handle abuse cases themselves,” the group urged.
The Paderborn Diocese stated that a reassessment of the case led them to conclude that the accusations against Hengsbach were indeed plausible.