German Archdiocese Faces Public Thrashing for Paying off Priest’s Gambling Debt

The Archdiocese of Cologne, Germany, intervened recently to pay off the huge gambling debt of one of its priests. It probably would have never made the news, but the money came from a fund used to pay victims of sexual abuse.

Rainer Maria Woelki
Rainer Maria Woelki
Rainer Maria Woelki, the Archbishop of Cologne, Germany. He has come under fire for his own questionable activities, as well as for paying off a priest’s gambling debt. (Image: Toronto Star)

The repayment is receiving sharp criticism in parts of the Catholic Church. Media outlet Waz reports that the priest racked up debts of almost €500,000 (US$542,050) and needed help to climb out of the hole. Some of the debt was the result of gambling.

The money for the debt repayment comes from the same special fund that pays victims of clerical sexual abuse. However, the Archdiocese allegedly didn’t answer calls from media outlets to explain its stance.

Victims of sexualized violence in the Church have been fighting for years for real recognition of their suffering, according to Johannes Norpoth. The spokesman of the German Bishops’ Conference advisory board said that 60% of all applicants have received less than €20,000 (US$21.674).

Priest Finds a Habit

The Archdiocese in Cologne confirmed the story to media outlets. It said that, in 2015 and 2016, a priest had been supported in the “settlement of his liabilities.” The decision to provide financial support was, it stated, the result of his “acute and completely extraordinary personal distress.”

The Archdiocese paid a total of €493,697.82 (US$535,020) in five tranches. However, it did not confirm exactly how much was for the gambling debts.

Victims of sexual crimes, sometimes without secured income, as in the case of a priest, are written off with an amount that is less than 2% of what the Church was willing to pay as compensation for the self-inflicted financial difficulties of a priest,” states Norpoth.

Some of the funds were taken from a special fund from which payments to victims of sexual abuse were also made. The Catholic Church, for years, has been caught up in different scandals about sexual abuse among its clergy.

The Archdiocese asserted that the funds came from a “freely available special fund.” It downplayed the link to the sexual abuse fund, despite media outlets allegedly finding evidence to the contrary.

Debt Settlement May Be a Crime

The Archdiocese may have done more than just redirect funds. It may have broken Catholic law. Lawyer Thomas Schüller of Münster University told that the debt settlement may be a violation of canon law. As such, the Pope may have to intervene and decide on the “disastrous” situation in Cologne.

The Federal Association of the Catholic Women’s Community of Germany is demanding action. It seeks the expulsion of Rainer Maria Woelki, the Archbishop of Cologne, and expects Pope Francis to find a quick resolution.

In addition to paying the priest’s debts, the Archdiocese also had to pay taxes on the settlements. This is because the payments are “donations,” and therefore taxable. However, the Archdiocese insists the payment of the taxes came out of an entirely different fund.

The subsequent taxation, including interest, cost the Archdiocese almost €650,000 (US$704,600) in addition to the sums paying off the priest’s debts.

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