The bizarre case of a bishop at the heart of the German hierarchy's fiercest public fight
“I have a pure heart,” Bishop Walter Mixa of Augsburg assured the press at the beginning of April when he was faced with allegations of having severely beaten orphans during his period of being parish priest in the Schrobenhausen.
Three months later, Bishop Mixa was at the centre of one of the German Church’s fiercest public rows.
Having resigned in the face of further allegations of beating children and misappropriation of funds, Bishop Mixa subsequently attacked his brother bishops in the press and claimed that he had been bullied out of office. He said he would appeal against his resignation and start a canonical case, pleading for an audience with the Holy Father.
Last week, a secret document compiled by colleagues in Augsburg and in the German bishops’ conference which had been sent to Rome surfaced in the German press, accusing the bishop of a serious drinking problem, a loss of grip of reality and of having made sexual advances on seminarians and young priests.
After a thrashing around against his brother bishops a little longer, arguing in newspaper interviews that he was the victim of a Church intrigue, Mixa gave up. He wrote a letter to his diocese, calling for reconciliation and apologising to those he had hurt and wronged, begging for reconciliation.
Pope Benedict XVI granted him an audience yesterday. A Vatican communiqué following the meeting confirmed that the Holy Father accepted Mixa’s resignation and said: “Bishop Mixa will retire for a time of silence, meditation and prayer and, following a period of cure and reconciliation will, like other bishops emeritus, be available for pastoral duties, with the agreement of his successor.”
According to the statement, the disgraced bishop had “recognised that he had made mistakes and committed errors which led to a loss of trust and made his resignation inevitable” and said “he once again requested forgiveness for all his mistakes but also, and rightly, asks that despite those mistakes, all the good he has done not be forgotten”.
But back in April, Bishop Mixa was still protesting his innocence. The priesthood and the Catholic faith, he said, were irreconcilable with violence. Accusations against him claimed that he had slapped the children in the face, cuffed them and hit them on exposed bottoms during a period between 1976 and 1996. The Mallersdorfer sisters who ran the home said that they had called in Mixa when they could not handle the education of the children and to hand out punishments for misbehaviour. But Mixa insisted he had not beaten the children in the Schrobenhausen orphanage.
Meanwhile the clerical abuse crisis was reaching fever-pitch in Germany.
Approximately 10 days into an inquiry into claims that the bishop and the nuns running the home had beaten children, financial irregularities emerged dating to the period when Mixa was in charge. The bishop had spent about £30,000 on antique furniture and artwork (including an overpriced fake Old Master print) on behalf of the orphanage trust, but some of which made its way to the presbytery.
Mixa admitted – having at first denied misappropriating funds – that upon becoming a bishop in 1996, he had taken and paid for the items personally at the request of the trust. “It was probably a mistake I acknowledge,” Mixa said. “And in retrospect, I regret it.”
More accusations surfaced and seven people swore under oath that Mixa had beaten them. Grudgingly in mid-April Mixa admitted that he might have slapped one or two children in the face. In a private meeting with the council of priests in the Augsburg diocese, Mixa broke down and begged for forgiveness.
Opinion in the diocese began to seriously divide. The well-built bishop with his shock of snow-white hair and pugilistic features was an outspoken (and at times gaffe-prone) conservative with a brusque manner that endeared him to some but left him with many enemies. Priests and lay people started calling for his resignation. Members of the German episcopate also began making noises.
The head of the German bishops’ conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, told the media that he was meeting the nuncio. On April 21, Archbishop Zollitsch and Archbishop Reinhard Marx of Munich went public. They said they had repeatedly told Bishop Mixa that he should take “a time of spiritual retreat and distance of space” in order to give clarity to the matter.
The next day, Mixa announced that he had asked the Pope – a trusted friend – to accept his resignation. He justified the step by saying it was damage control. The debate about his person had weighed heavily on the priests and faithful of the diocese, he said.
“I am and have been conscious of my own weaknesses and I am very conscious of that in the face of those to whom I was unjust and all those to whom I gave sorrow”, he wrote.
Laity and priests breathed a collective sigh of relief, but the Mixa saga continued.
Further accusations now surfaced. A dossier entitled “Allegations of abuse against Bishop Mixa in Eichstätt”, which was based on information coming from Mixa’s former diocese of Eichstätt, came to the fore. Archbishop Zollitsch and Archbishop Marx had a crisis summit with the Pope in Rome on April 29. Only three weeks after Mixa’s official resignation, acting with uncharacteristic speed, the Vatican announced on May 9 that the Pope had accepted the bishop’s demission.
The file was sent to the Office of Public Prosecution – the newspapers reporting that Mixa had allegedly sexually abused minors, including an altar server – but on May 14, the Office of Public Prosecution in Ingolstadt announced there was not enough evidence and closed the investigation.
For a while, it seemed as though the matter was now finished. Mixa was resting in a Swiss clinic, the German bishops had managed to get him to resign, and quiet reigned in the Diocese of Augsburg.
There were some minor rumblings among clergy and laity and Mixa was sighted in Rome, reportedly speaking to the Congregation for Bishops.
Then Mixa came back from his holiday on June 12 and returned to his episcopal apartments. The newspapers, We are Church, and certain members of the diocesan clergy were up in arms. How could the disgraced bishop return to his palace after he had resigned?
Mixa’s lawyer told the Augsburger Allgemeine: “He still lives here. He can’t go camping.”
Then the mud-slinging started. In an interview with the Welt, Mixa said the pressure from his brother bishops had been “like purgatory” and “an oven of fire” and said he had written to the Pope withdrawing his resignation only days after tendering it. He blamed the wall of criticism he had received on the fact that he had tried to run the diocese in a conservative way.
The saddest thing in the whole affair, he said, was the fact that his resignation had already been prepared for him without any discussions with him. He blamed Archbishop Zollitsch’s behaviour in particular.
“He could have been more brotherly,” he said. And he would take his case to the Pope.
The interview was picked up by other papers. Archbishop Zollitsch and Marx remained silent, while Pater Eberhard von Gemmingen, a former editor of Radio Vatican, called Mixa a sick man.
The situation was getting uglier by the day. News surfaced of the secret file, first in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and then in the Sueddeutsche. (It later emerged that the file had been leaked to around 20 newspapers). The file contained allegations that Mixa had tried to seduce young priests and seminarians, that he had lost a sense of reality and had a serious drinking problem.
While the newspapers like the Welt continued to speculate whether Mixa had been the victim of a plot to save face, Mixa capitulated and apologised. He met the Pope as he had hoped, though it is to be wondered whether the meeting went to his satisfaction.
The Pope said the meeting was “for reconciliation, for a new and reciprocal acceptance in the spirit of mercy of the Lord and in faithful abandonment to His guidance” after a period of “excessive polemics”.
Let us hope then, that this will be the last we hear of the bizarre case of Bishop Mixa.