Margot Kaessmann Quits After DUI Incident

04/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

BERLIN — Germany's top Protestant cleric resigned on Wednesday after she was caught driving with a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit, an incident that she said had undermined her authority.

Margot Kaessmann, who was elected only last October as the first woman to head Germany's Lutheran church, said she was quitting both that post and her job as bishop of Hannover immediately.

"I made a serious mistake that I regret deeply," Kaessmann, 51, said in a statement to a televised news conference.

"My heart tells me very clearly that I cannot remain in office with the necessary authority," she added. "I would no longer have in the future the same freedom that I have had to name and judge ethical and political challenges."

During her brief time in office, Kaessmann proved willing to give the Protestant church a voice of authority, wading into key political issues including the war in Afghanistan. Her resignation, despite support from her church, commanded widespread regard.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said she accepted Kaessmann's decision "with respect and regret," adding that she had valued working with the bishop.

Kaessmann was stopped by police on Saturday after ignoring a red traffic light in Hannover.

A test showed she had a blood-alcohol level of 0.154 percent – well above the legal limit of 0.05.

Kaessmann, who was accompanied by her four daughters as she gave her resignation statement, gave no detailed explanation of her actions and took no questions.

Because her blood alcohol level was above 0.11 percent, it is considered a criminal offense in Germany. Prosecutors in Hannover have begun an investigation.

Kaessmann faces the loss of her driver's license for at least several months and a fine.

After the story broke on Tuesday, fellow Lutheran church leaders gave her a vote of confidence and left Kaessmann to decide what to do.

Kaessmann's deputy, Nikolaus Schneider, was to take over until new elections for the post are held in November. A term lasts six years.

She said that she would remain a pastor in Hannover, where she has been bishop since 1999.

Kaessmann was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, forcing her to undergo an operation and take a two-month break from her duties. The following year, she and her husband of 26 years divorced.

As top Protestant cleric, Kaessmann offered sharp criticism of the war in Afghanistan, where Germany has more than 4,000 troops. She declared in a New Year's sermon that "nothing is good in Afghanistan."

Politicians and clergy valued Kaessmann's ability to combine down-to-earth sensibility with an interpretation of her faith.

"I personally regret her resignation very much, because I have come to know and value her as a reliable advocate for solidarity and a strong personality who combines theological competence with life experience," said Sigmar Gabriel, the leader of the opposition Social Democrats.