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ROME (ChurchMilitant.com) - Over two hundred altar servers turned their backs on German Cdl. Rainer Maria Woelki in a mass protest at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls last Monday.
As the cardinal-archbishop of Cologne began his homily to nearly 2,000 acolytes from Germany, small groups of servers abruptly stood and faced the cathedral's main entrance to the west, rudely interrupting the preacher.
Woelki was presiding at the opening Mass for the acolytes, who are on pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi. The pilgrimage includes evening prayer at the Lourdes grotto in the Vatican gardens, a general audience with Pope Francis and a closing service in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi.
The protestors were objecting to Woelki's handling of clerical sex abuse cases in the archdiocese of Cologne and Pope Francis' reluctance to accept the cardinal's resignation. Several servers walked out of the basilica.
A number of protestors also waved rainbow flags and wore LGBT-colored face masks to show their solidarity with the German Synodal Path, which seeks to change Church teaching on homosexuality. Others repeatedly shouted, "Woelki must go!"
Clearly stunned by the protest, the archbishop interrupted his sermon to address the protestors by pointing out that Jesus never turned His back on anyone and always showed people His face openly — the "face of the Father who accepts and loves every person."
While several congregants applauded in response to the cardinal's interjection, most young people stood with their hands stubbornly folded. The cardinal did not join the procession after the Eucharistic celebration but hurried out through the back door.
Speaking to Domradio.de after Mass, Woelki said that the protesters "certainly meant well from their perspective and believed they were standing for truth and justice," even though it is a pity "that they used the service for this [protest]."
"Of course, it is exactly the opposite of what we celebrate there, namely, that God turns to us people and that the Eucharist is the celebration of unity and peace," he said, admitting that he found the protest "a bit difficult."
"But as I said, I think they are young people, and they certainly believed and were convinced that they were doing something good. It has been like this, and now we have to accept it like that," the cardinal added.
Servers on pilgrimage said they didn't want to give the impression that everything in Rome was "peace, joy and pancakes." They also expressed frustration that the altar servers have "no voice and no association" that can speak for them.
Nearly one-third of clerical sex abuse victims were altar boys, a church-commissioned report concluded in 2018. At least 3,677 people were abused by clergy in Germany between 1946 and 2014, and more than half of the victims were 13 or younger when the abuse took place.
In a failed attempt at damage control, Woelki faced public backlash in 2020 for deciding not to publish the results of a report he had commissioned in January 2019 on sexual abuse in Cologne, Germany's biggest and wealthiest archdiocese.
The report by the law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl examined personnel files from 1975 onwards to determine "which personal, systemic or structural deficits were responsible in the past for incidents of sexual abuse being covered up or not being punished consistently."
The cardinal cited legal concerns about publishing the study conducted by Westpfahl Spilker Wastl but agreed to release a second report authored by Cologne-based criminal law professor Björn Gercke.
The investigation exonerated Woelki but revealed that two-thirds of the abuses were committed by priests, with 243 abusers and 386 victims in all.
"Silence, secrecy and lack of oversight" had created a system that allowed for a "cover-up" of abuse, Woelki admitted. "I did not have to register the cases with Rome, but I could have, and I should have. I did not do it; it would have been better if I had."
He added, "What we have seen shows clearly there was a cover-up. I am ashamed," he confessed. "Moral responsibility lies with the perpetrators of abuse and with the people who led and lead the Church. Moral responsibility also lies with me."
Following the backlash, Pope Francis granted Woelki a six-month period of spiritual reflection in 2021. Upon returning to his post on March 2, 2022, the cardinal offered his resignation for failing to deal appropriately with allegations of clerical sex abuse in the Church.
In a Lenten pastoral letter, Woelki wrote, "Certainly, I realize that the situation has not become any easier since October last year. A time-out in itself does not solve any problems." Nevertheless, the pontiff asked the prelate to remain in office.
The protest by the acolytes was partly a result of the pontiff's delay in deciding to accept or reject Woelki's resignation, some of the demonstrators said.
Yannik Gran, an altar boy who participated in the protest, told the Italian newspaper Domani, "He must resign. We do not want him as the archbishop of Cologne and we did not even want him to celebrate Mass."
"We no longer want to support a cardinal who has covered hundreds of episodes of abuse in the diocese of Cologne. We have lost faith in him and in the Church he represents and who are leaving the Church in Germany like us many other faithful," Gran added.
When asked if they were right to turn their backs on the cardinal, Gran replied, "In fact, he's the one who turned his back on us, shunning us and refusing for years to answer our questions about the abuse scandal, and that's what we meant by our symbolic gesture."
The Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls is one of Rome's four major papal basilicas, along with the basilicas of St. John Lateran, St. Peter's and St. Mary Major. It is also one of the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome.
The basilica is in extra-territorial Vatican jurisdiction and became famous after St. Paul's stone coffin was found beneath Rome's second-largest basilica in 2006. The basilica was built on the site where St. Paul is believed to have been buried after his martyrdom.