Pope Benedict, 2015 (CNS photo/Stefano Spaziani, pool)

“What did he know and when did he know it?” That was the famous question asked by Senator Howard Baker fifty years ago at the Watergate hearings. Today that question is being asked about Pope Benedict, who has been accused of mishandling sexual-abuse cases when he was archbishop of Munich between 1977 and 1982. 

Benedict’s involvement in these cases is the subject of a new independent report on child abuse by the Munich law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl (WSW). The firm was commissioned by the German Catholic Church in 2020 to conduct an inquiry into allegations of abuse in the Munich Archdiocese between 1945 and 2019. The WSW investigators identified at least 497 victims (mostly teenage boys) and 261 offenders, 205 of whom were priests. Forty-two cases have been forwarded to the public prosecutor.

The 1,900-page report reveals several cases in which abusive priests were allowed to continue their pastoral duties under the supervision of their bishop. The findings incriminate, in particular, three recent archbishops of Munich: Cardinal Ratzinger (1977–1982); his successor Cardinal Wetter; and the current archbishop, Cardinal Marx. Ratzinger, who has long denied any wrongdoing, is accused of mishandling at least four cases of known abuse. Wetter is said to have mishandled twenty-five cases, and Marx two. In all these cases the accused priests remained in active ministry.

At a January 20 press conference announcing the report’s main findings, WSW attorney Martin Pusch said that the published figures do not reflect the entire scope of the abuse: “We are convinced that the dark field in this regard is much wider.” He rejected Benedict’s claims of ignorance, as well as Benedict’s denial that he had attended a meeting where an abusive priest was re-assigned. Pusch re-asserted that abuse cases happened on Cardinal Ratzinger’s watch: “those priests continued their work without sanctions. The church did not do anything.” The WSW report concluded that “Archbishop Cardinal Ratzinger, through his behavior in this case, unilaterally gave priority to the interests of the church and priests over the interests of the injured party.”

The 2022 WSW findings about one archdiocese confirm the conclusions of another recent investigation of clergy abuse on a national scale. In 2018, the German Bishops’ Conference, headed by Cardinal Marx, issued a report documenting the sexual abuse of 3,677 children by 1,670 clerics between 1946 and 2014. That study found that more than half the victims were under the age of fourteen when they were abused.

He still seemed to be apologizing on behalf of others rather than himself.

On February 8, Benedict responded to the new allegations of complicity and coverup. First, he recanted his original denial of attending a meeting with local Church officials in 1980 to discuss the re-assignment of a priest suspected of abuse. He claimed his earlier denials were the result of a “transcription” error in the meeting records. His legal defense team also sent a more technical reply to the WSW investigators, disputing specific allegations, accusing the inquiry of misinterpretation, and insisting that Benedict was not to blame for any cover-up during his tenure as archbishop in Munich. Finally, Benedict offered a more personal response to the accusers and victims. He confessed  his “most grievous faults” in handling the Munich abuse cases, and expressed his “pain for the abuses and the errors that occurred during the time of [his] mandate.” He conveyed to all the victims his “profound shame,” “deep sorrow,” and “heartfelt request for forgiveness.”

Many found this confessional apology evasive. If he acknowledged “grievous faults” in his handling of abuse allegations, then why had he hired lawyers to contest and discredit the WSW report? He still seemed to be apologizing on behalf of others rather than himself.

Benedict’s failure to acknowledge any specific wrongdoing angered the survivor advocacy group SNAP, which said that he had squandered an opportunity for true contrition and healing. The Irish Times reported a similar reaction from the German filmmaker Christoph Röhl, who made a documentary about the former pope. Röhl described Benedict’s February 8 response as “classic Ratzinger,” and insisted that “there are countless well-documented cases proving that Ratzinger turned a blind eye when confronted with notorious instances of sexual abuse…. Yet not once has he accepted personal responsibility for the systemic cover-up that took place under his watch. He has always blamed others.”

In Ratzinger’s defense, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston claimed that Benedict’s response to his accusers showed sincere contrition for what had been lacking in his stewardship: “Benedict's acknowledgement of the irreparable harm caused by sexual abuse in the Church and of his own failings to do everything to prevent such harm is a challenge to all those who hold positions of leadership in the Church…. We must do better.”

Benedict’s long record as a churchman provides some clues that help us understand both his reaction to the allegations in the Munich Report and his priorities as archbishop and pope. It is fair to characterize him as an institutionalist, who has consistently put the preservation and protection of the institutional Church at the top of his agenda. Thus, under his watch, the Church in Munich chose to protect its reputation rather than to turn priests guilty of crimes over to the police.

Benedict’s career at the Vatican was dogged by similar criticisms. Before he became pope in 2005, he had served since 1981 as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. During his long tenure there, he acted as the quintessential company man, enforcing secrecy and loyalty among his peers by means of the 1962 edict Crimen sollicitationis. He instructed Catholic bishops to keep investigations into clerical misconduct confidential and not to report them to local authorities. Predictably, this angered many victim advocacy groups who accused the Vatican of cover-up.

When it comes to this grim chapter in the history of the Catholic Church, what should the final judgement be on the ninety-four-year-old pope emeritus, who is now awaiting what he describes as the “dark door of death”? The answer will depend partly on the chapters still to be written. What, if anything, has Rome learned from his mistakes? For it will fall to other bishops and other popes to make amends for the failures to which Benedict has confessed, however vaguely. If the 2022 Munich Report is to be something other than just another nail in the coffin of the institutional Church, Rome will have to renounce the institutionalism that Benedict—and many other bishops of his generation—represented. Has Pope Francis, who has made a point of calling the sexual abuse of children a crime rather than just a “sin,” finally succeeded in changing the Church’s priorities? Victims everywhere are cautiously hopeful that this change of language truly represents a change of heart.

Arthur McCaffrey is a former Harvard University psychologist who writes frequently about abuse.

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