VATICAN CITY (AP) — A leading German bishop who has acknowledged slapping children and is being investigated for sexual abuse of minors and financial misconduct lost his job Saturday as Pope Benedict XVI continued cleaning house.
The German-born pontiff formally accepted the resignation offer made April 21 by Bishop Walter Mixa, an outspoken conservative voice in the German church and a military chaplain for Germany, as well as head of the Augsburg diocese.
Mixa’s posting to Augsburg in summer 2005 was among the first appointments Benedict made at the start of his papacy.
The terse Vatican announcement, without commenting on the abuse allegations, only said the decision was in line with canon law provisions for bishops no longer fit for service.
Mixa had offered to step down amid persistent allegations that he hit children while a priest decades ago and of financial irregularities at a children’s home he was responsible for.
Pressure on the Vatican to get him out of the post increased on Friday, when the Augsburg diocese said, without further details, that it had given prosecutors information in line with German church guidelines for handling sex abuse cases.
Mixa, 69, is the latest in a line of churchmen to be toppled by scandals.
The Vatican is reeling from allegations that bishops and other church hierarchy systematically covered up physical or sexual abuse of minors in several European countries. In some cases, like that of Mixa, bishops have themselves been accused of abuse.
In a reference to the sex abuse revelations staining dioceses in several European countries this year, Benedict said Saturday that the church was being “tried” and “wounded” by sin.
In Germany, We Are The Church, a lobby for church reform, voiced “relief” that Benedict accepted Mixa’s resignation but pushed for more aggressive action by the Vatican for transparency on the selection on bishops.
“To not increase further the loss of standing and credibility for the Catholic church well beyond the Augsburg diocese, it remains necessary to clear up all accusations comprehensively and as quickly as possible,” it said.
Mixa’s resignation, along with those recently of other compromised bishops in Ireland, Norway and Belgium, raise both “increasingly pressing questions” on how bishops are chosen and calls for local church involvement in the vetting process behind the Vatican’s selection of bishops, We Are The Church said.
But Belgium’s bishops dismissed just such an appeal for local voice when answering a reporter’s question shortly after they met with the pope, indicating that the choice of a replacement for the Bruges bishop, who recently resigned after admitted he sexually abused a boy, was firmly in the hands of the Vatican.
In the Mixa case, German daily Augsburger Allgemeine reported that Ingolstadt prosecutors had launched a preliminary investigation of allegations that he sexually abused a boy during his time as bishop of Eichstaett from 1996 to 2005.
Prosecutors confirmed a preliminary investigation against Mixa but gave no details.
“I have spoken with him by telephone … and he said that he resolutely rejects these accusations,” Mixa’s lawyer, Gerhard Decker, said on n-tv television. Mixa has disappeared from public view since offering his resignation.
Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, who heads Germany’s bishops conference, thanked Benedict for letting Mixa resign, saying that “the pope’s swift decision brings the necessary clarity.”
The Augsburg diocese’s vicar general, Karlheinz Knebel, said that “with our actions, we are following the German bishops’ demands for transparency and truth.” He urged clerics and rank-and-file faithful to “preserve the unity of the church in this difficult time.”
Mixa, who has asked forgiveness of “those whom I may have caused heartache,” initially denied ever using violence against youngsters but later, after intense pressure, said he may have slapped children.
The case, coming in the country of Benedict’s birth and involving a prelate who was a key member of Germany’s bishops conference for more than a decade, was particularly embarrassing for the German church and faithful. German church authorities say the number of people leaving the church has increased sharply since abuse allegations started surfacing in recent months.
The strains of the scandals seem to be dividing the top echelons of the church itself.
An Austrian Catholic news agency Kathpress reported on Friday that Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn blasted the Vatican’s dean of the college of cardinals for seriously harming victims when, during Easter Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square, Cardinal Angelo Sodano dismissed claims of clerical abuse as “petty gossip.”
Schoenborn, a confidante of Benedict’s and considered by Vatican watchers to be potential pope material himself, had already indirectly blamed Sodano for blocking a probe of sex abuse allegations against late Austrian Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, who stepped down, officially for advanced age, after the complaints surfaced.
Belgian Archbishop Andre Leonard said that during their meeting Saturday Benedict “made concrete allusion to the drama our church is going through” due to the “grave” abuses which “wounded the church.
Benedict in his speech to the bishops lamented that the Belgian church was afflicted with some of the problems vexing churches in other European countries, notably dwindling numbers of both flock and ministers.
Benedict has been leading a campaign to invigorate what he calls the continent’s Christian roots, but his efforts risk being eclipsed by the attention the Vatican has had to dedicate to the sex abuse scandals.
The latest scandals followed Benedict’s scathing rebuke earlier this year of Irish bishops, after a government-led probe of church abuse in heavily Catholic Ireland turned up decades of systematic sexual and physical abuse of children in parishes, orphanages, schools and workhouses by priests, brothers and nuns, and cover-ups by church hierarchy.
Associated Press reporter Geir Moulson contributed to this report from Berlin.