By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
In my “All Things Catholic” column on Friday, I offered a rundown of stories over the last week which shook the Vatican. One item I left off that list, but which deserves to be recorded, was Pope Benedict XVI’s July 1 meeting with German Bishop Walter Mixa of Augsburg, whose resignation was accepted on May 8.
Mixa resigned amid allegations of physical abuse against children and financial improprieties.
Senior Vatican sources told me this week that the statement issued after the meeting was almost unique in that, even though it was released by the Vatican Press Office, it was more or less directly written by the pope himself. In effect, the Mixa affair offers a glimpse of Benedict struggling to keep his bishops on the same page in a time of crisis, rather than playing the blame game by pointing fingers at one another.
To recap, Mixa, 69, was the bishop of the Augsburg diocese as well as the military bishop for the German armed forces. Earlier this spring, accusations surfaced that he had physically abused youths who lived at an orphanage in Bavaria when he was a priest in the 1970s. German media described six such incidents, which ranged from slaps to punches to the head.
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Mixa initially denied those accusations, then acknowledged that he may have slapped some children but insisted that such behavior was normal at the time. Mixa also faces charges that while was at the orphanage, and later as head of a board of trustees for a foundation supporting it, money intended for support of orphans was spent on art, wine and carpets for Mixa, as well as an expensive bishop’s ring.
At one stage accusations of sexual abuse were also lodged against Mixa, which were reported to civil authorities in Germany. Prosecutors, however, declined to pursue those charges.
In the background, Mixa has long been seen as a divisive figure in the German bishops’ conference. He’s a strong conservative given to criticizing the decisions of the conference and of other bishops. He’s also reportedly struggled with alcoholism, which some German observers say played a role in shaping his cantankerous and unpredictable public profile.
In mid-June, well after his resignation had been submitted and accepted, Mixa gave an interview to German media in which he said he had been strong-armed into stepping down by other German prelates. He specifically cited Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg, President of the German bishops’ conference, and Archbishop Reinhard Marx of Munich – both of whom, according to Vatican sources, met with Benedict XVI during the spring to urge him to remove Mixa, arguing the situation had become intolerable.
In that interview, Mixa hinted that he would like to be reinstated as bishop of Augusburg, blaming other bishops such as Zollitch and Marx for putting him under pressure that was “like purgatory.” Mixa said he was considering an appeal to one of the Vatican’s canonical courts.
All this set the stage for the July 1 meeting with the pope, in which Mixa’s resignation was “definitively confirmed,” according to the Vatican statement.
Instead of returning to power in Augsburg, the statement said, Mixa will withdraw for a “period of silence, meditation and prayer.” After pursuing “care and reconciliation,” it said, Mixa will be available for “pastoral duties” like any other retired bishop, at the discretion of whoever takes over in Augsburg.
The statement said that Mixa acknowledges “mistakes and errors,” creating a “loss of trust” in him which made his resignation “inevitable.” At the same time, it said, Mixa also asks that “all the good he has done not be forgotten.”
For his part, Benedict XVI expressed hope that Mixa’s request for forgiveness will find “open ears and open hearts.” Pointedly, the pope asked his brother bishops in Germany, “more than in the past,” to offer Mixa “their friendship and closeness, their understanding, and their help to find the right path.”
Benedict also asked Catholics in Augsburg to welcome whoever is appointed as Mixa’s successor warmly, in the spirit of “harmonious witness” to the rest of the world.
In effect, the statement gave most German Catholics what they wanted – i.e., a promise that Mixa isn’t coming back – while at the same time indirectly telling the other bishops in Germany to stop tossing Mixa under the bus.
A senior Vatican source said on Saturday that the July 1 meeting with Mixa, and the statement that followed, should be taken in tandem with Benedict XVI’s June 28 session with Cardinals Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, and Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals and the former Secretary of State under Pope John Paul II.
In both cases, the official argued, Benedict personally took a deteriorating situation in hand, promoting unity in the church by healing rifts that had opened among bishops.
Time will tell whether the healing in either case is real, or merely cosmetic. In the meantime, the Mixa episode at least confirms that Benedict XVI is not so isolated that he’s attempting to ride out the current storm without getting involved – especially, it seems, when that storm exposes divisions at the level of the church’s senior management.