“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.