Rome – German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, one of Pope Francis’ closest advisers, asked the pontiff to allow him to resign as head of the archdiocese of Munich and Freising, as a sign of responsibility for “the failure systemic “of Catholic Church leaders over the decades in responding to clergy sexual abuse.

In a shocking letter to Francis, which Marx released to reporters on June 4, the cardinal says he wants to “share the responsibility” for how priests and bishops have mismanaged cases of abuse. He also admits that he feels “personally guilty” for trying to protect the reputation of the church when it comes to victims.

“To assume responsibility, it is not enough in my opinion to react only and exclusively if the files provide proof of the errors and shortcomings of the individuals,” wrote Marx in the letter dated May 21. “We bishops must make it clear that we also represent the institution of the Church as a whole.”

By resigning, declares the cardinal, “I may be able to send a personal signal for a new beginning, for a new awakening of the Church, not only in Germany”.

“I would like to show that it is not the ministry which is in the foreground but the mission of the Gospel”, Marx told Francis. “I therefore urge you to accept this resignation.”

Marx has been leading his archdiocese since 2007. He is also one of the seven members of the Consultative Council of Cardinals of Francis and the coordinator of the Vatican Economic Council, which oversees the financial activities of the Vatican City-State and the offices of the Holy See.

The cardinal is 67 years old, eight years before the traditional retirement age of 75 for bishops. His decision to resign over the actions of the church as a whole on clergy abuse, and not because of a known investigation into his personal actions, appears unprecedented.

The Vatican did not immediately respond to Marx’s publication of his letter to Francis. The daily June 4 newsletter did not announce whether the Pope had chosen to accept the resignation.

In a personal statement to reporters sent with the copy of Marx’s letter to Francis, the cardinal said the Pope had authorized him to publish his letter and told him to “continue to exercise my service as bishop until that [Francis’] the decision is made.”

As in many countries around the world, the German Catholic Church has been rocked by reports of clergy sexual abuse and cover-up by bishops. A 2018 report documented nearly 3,700 cases of suspected abuse over a 68-year period in Germany.

The outcry over the report partly inspired the launch of the German church’s “Synodal Path” initiative, a series of gatherings discussing contemporary issues and the future of Catholicism in the country.

The path has been criticized by some more conservative church voices, who say it is too progressive on issues such as sexuality and women’s leadership.

Marx, who led the German Bishops’ Conference from 2012 to 2020, was one of the main organizers of the synod program. In 2019, he firmly defended the program against criticism from Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Congregation for Bishops of the Vatican. Ouellet had said some of the talking points in Germany would impact the entire world church.

Although Germany has eight Catholic cardinals, Marx is one of only two not retired. The other, Cardinal Rainer Woelki, heads the Archdiocese of Cologne, which is currently the subject of a Vatican investigation into its handling of complaints of abuse.

Woelki has previously said he will not resign over the past handling of abuse cases.

“Just take moral responsibility with me and go and protect the reputation of the bishop’s office and the church – I think that’s too easy,” the cardinal said on March 23. “Such a resignation would only be short-lived. Symbol.”

In his letter to Francis, Marx says “that it is important for me to share the responsibility for the catastrophe of sexual abuse committed by Church leaders in recent decades.”

“It is also not fair to simply tie these problems largely to times past and to former Church leaders, thereby ‘burying’ what happened,” the cardinal said.

“I feel that by remaining silent, neglecting to act and focusing too much on the reputation of the Church, I have made myself personally guilty and responsible,” he says. “Obtaining and ignoring the victims was certainly our biggest fault in the past. “