The German Bishops are facing multiple challenges as they meet this week in Mainz for a crucial spring assembly, with the place of women in the Church, compensation payments for clerical abuse survivors and the election of a new president and secretary at the top of their agenda.

– Women clamour for “gender-sensitive” Church, end to “gender apartheid”

The prelates’ assembly began Monday with the symbolic handing-over of a 130,000-strong petition for a “gender-sensitive” Church.

The thousands of signatures for gender equality – collected by the two largest Catholic women’s groups in Germany, the KFD and the KDFB – were presented to outgoing German Bishops’ President Cardinal Reinhard Marx and top lay leader Thomas Sternberg.

The delivery of the petition was accompanied by the cries “we want this Church to change” and enough with the “gender apartheid” in the Church, in the words of the more than a hundred women’s groups’ representatives present.

Cardinal Marx thanked the women for their commitment and told them he had already taken their concerns for gender parity in the Church to the Vatican during the mid-February Council of Cardinals meeting.

For their part, Sternberg and his deputy as president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), Karin Kortmann, pledged to keep women’s concerns front-and-centre in the German Church’s two-year “synodal path” reform process.

Marx’s deputy – Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück – as well as Bishop of Mainz Peter Kohlgraf and outgoing Bishops’ Secretary Hans Langendörfer were also on hand Monday to show the Catholic women their support.

– Survivors criticise delay, inadequacy of compensation: “Recognising the suffering is not enough”

Less conciliatory at the start of the German Bishops’ assembly, however, were survivors of clerical sex abuse, who have been critical of the prelates for their delay in coming to an agreement over compensation more than a decade after the first Church pedophilia scandals came to light in the country.

The German Church currently pays survivors of abuse an average of 5,000 euros “in recognition of their suffering” in addition to paying therapy fees, but the Eckiger Tisch victims’ group has been repeating ahead of the episcopal gathering that “recognising the suffering is not enough”.

That’s one of the reasons why on the Bishops’ agenda for this meet in Mainz is a proposal that could see victims compensated with up to 300,000 euros per person, but which some prelates have questioned as too costly or as difficult to justify drawing on the donations of the faithful.

Bishop of Trier Stephan Ackermann recently said he expected a decision “in the coming months” as to whether the German Bishops would decide for one-off payments across the board to survivors or for an independent commission that would determine restitutions on a case-by-case basis.

– Who will be the new Bishops’ President and Secretary?

As if dealing with women’s and survivors’ demands were not enough, however, the German Bishops will also have to vote in this assembly for a new president and secretary, given the unexpected stepping-aside of Marx and Langendörfer to give space, in their words, to the “younger generation”.

March 2 the news agency AFP was touting Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen (55) as a possible successor to Marx as Bishops’ President, who in any case will be chosen in a vote Tuesday.

Overbeck used a New Year’s sermon to urge the Church to choose “a fresh start”, warning on the one hand that the limitations women face in Catholicism are “increasingly inacceptable” to many people, and on the other that “quite a few priests” find celibacy “a heavy burden”.

But demanding just as much media attention as the candidates for the new Bishops’ Conference President is the speculation around who might replace Langendörfer as Secretary.

Cardinal Marx himself come out Monday saying that he is “very, very much” in favour of a laywoman for that role, given that, as he added, it is “high time to increase the presence of women in management positions” in the Church.

Another voice in favour Monday of giving the position of Bishops’ Secretary to a non-ordained and even non-religious woman was Anna Mirijam Kaschner, herself the Secretary of the Nordic Bishops’ Conference since 2009.

Kaschner told that the qualifications a good Bishops’ Secretary needs include training in theology and pastoral care, “but on the other hand, organizational skills are also required”.

“The latter is probably even more important”, the nun said.

“When Pope Francis asked me the same question during the last ad limina visit of the Nordic Bishops’ Conference, I also answered him: You don’t need ordination.

“But what you do need is a certain loyalty to the bishops and a love for the Church. This is even more important than any other qualification”, Kaschner insisted, pointing out too that since priests and bishops are often far away from everyday issues, a layperson’s view, outside of Church hierarchies, would be of considerable help to prelates.

“It is important that someone from the grassroots is there [in Bishops’ Conferences] and brings their own ideas and ideas to these groups”, Kaschner explained.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.