A Vatican official who handles sexual abuse cases for the Catholic Church has quit two months after being accused of sexual abuse.
On Monday, Hermann Geissler resigned from his position as chief of staff in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a body that handles discipline in sexual abuse cases within the Catholic Church, according to a statement from the Holy See’s press office.
Geissler maintained his innocence but said he was resigning to protect the church.
“Fr. Geissler decided to take this step to limit the damage already done to the Congregation and to his Community,” the office stated.
Last year, a former nun accused an unnamed priest of making sexual advances on her while in confessional. That woman, Doris Wagner, later identified the priest to be Geissler, according to the National Catholic Reporter.
Wagner shared her story at a November event in Rome called Overcoming Silence — Women’s Voices in the Abuse Crisis. There, she talked about how she had moved from her native Germany at age 19 to join the religious community known as the Work.
In 2009, a priest asked to be assigned as Wagner’s confessor and used it to groom her for abuse, Wagner said.
“He would keep me there kneeling in front of him for hours, and he would tell me how much he liked me and that he knew that I liked him and even though we couldn’t marry, there would be other ways,” Wagner said at the event. “At some point, he would try to hold me and kiss me, and I simply panicked and ran out of the room.”
Wagner said she reported the behavior to her female superior and asked whether she could have another confessor assigned to her.
“When I told her, actually, I was extremely relieved that she didn’t blame me,” Wagner said. “Instead, she said something like, ‘You know, I knew Father has a certain weakness for women, so we kind of have to put up with this.’ ”
While speaking at the Rome event, Wagner did not identify the priest, describing him at the time as only “another leading member of the community, a priest, who to this day is working as capo ufficio [head of the office] at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”
However, several news outlets soon determined she could be referring only to Geissler, and Wagner confirmed it was him in later interviews.
Earlier this month, Wagner told the National Catholic Reporter that nothing much had happened after she reported Geissler in 2014 to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
"I got a response that stated that Fr. Geissler had admitted, and had asked pardon and was admonished,” Wagner told the religious newspaper. “And that was all.”
Wagner added it was “ridiculous” and “symbolic of the church’s attitude towards perpetrators” that Geissler remained in the high-ranking position within the church.
The National Catholic Reporter’s Vatican correspondent, Joshua J. McElwee, detailed why it would be particularly outrageous for no action to be taken against someone who had made sexual advances in the confessional:
Solicitation in the confessional is generally considered very serious by the Catholic Church, which teaches that confession is a sacred opportunity for faithful to obtain forgiveness for sins and reconcile with God.
A priest propositioning someone in the confessional is considered so serious that is labeled by the Vatican as a "grave delict," and judgment on such matters is reserved to the doctrinal congregation.
The Code of Canon Law prescribes that a priest found guilty of solicitation “be punished, according to the gravity of the delict, by suspension, prohibitions, and privations.” It specifies: “In graver cases he is to be dismissed from the clerical state.”
On Tuesday, the Holy See press office said Geissler maintained that the accusation was untrue. He also asked the church to continue a canonical process it had already started to look into the allegation.
Geissler noted he reserved the right to take civil legal action.
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