German investigation accuses Pope Benedict XVI of ‘wrongdoing’ in handling of abuse cases while archbishop of Munich

Washington Post

January 20, 2022

By Chico Harlan and Loveday Morris

[NOTE: The full text of the Westpfahl Spilker Wastl report about abuse in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising is available here.]

Rome – A church-commissioned German investigation on Thursday accused Pope Benedict XVI of “wrongdoing” in his handling of sexual abuse cases during his time running the archdiocese of Munich between 1977 and 1982.

The law firm that carried out the investigation said Benedict could be accused of wrongdoing in four cases, including one in which he knowingly accepted a priest into his archdiocese even after the cleric had been convicted of sexual abuse in a criminal court.

At a news conference to unveil the findings, a lawyer said that Benedict — known then as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — claimed to have no direct knowledge of the cases. But his denials were “not reconcilable with the files in evidence,” the lawyer, Martin Pusch said.

The report, commissioned by the archdiocese in Munich and compiled by German law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl, provides a harsh judgment about one of the most influential Catholic figures of the last century, and suggests the retired pope had direct knowledge of clerical abuse well before it exploded into a public crisis.

The report, which was to be released after a midday news conference, looks at decades of cases within the archdiocese.

Part of the report is expected to focus on one particular pedophile priest, the Rev. Peter Hullermann. Allegations first arose against Hullermann in the late 1970s, and in 1980 — when Ratzinger was archbishop — he was moved from his diocese of Essen to Munich to undergo “therapy.”

German press reports have long raised questions over how complicit the retired pope was in enabling the priest to remain in church work involving children and continue to abuse.

In 1986, Hullermann was given a suspended jail sentence for abusing children but he was still allowed to remain in the church. He was only removed in 2010, when it was discovered he was still working in close contact with children.

The former pope provided 82-pages of written answers and information in response to questions, the law firm said.

Even before the release of Thursday’s investigation, the multicontinent abuse scandal had endured as a bruising part Benedict’s legacy. During his tenure as pontiff, he dealt with an explosion of cases across the global church, in what amounted to Catholicism’s biggest crisis in decades.

He went farther than his predecessor, John Paul II, in addressing the problems, defrocking hundreds of priests and meeting with clerical abuse victims in the United States — the first such meeting for a pope. But advocates saw his steps as insufficient, noting that he was slow too grasp the systemic nature of the clerics’ crimes and their coverup.

Most significantly, he did not mete out punishment against bishops who buried cases or transferred known abusers to new parishes. And he enacted few meaningful reforms to safeguard the church before stepping down in 2013, citing what he described as his “advanced age.”

Some church watchers note that Benedict, who spent his career defending the church against outside forces like secularism, helped to foster Vatican’s penchant for secrecy on abuse cases. Benedict has perhaps more direct knowledge of the crisis than any modern Catholic figure, because he presided over the Vatican’s powerful doctrinal department — which oversees abuse cases and punishment — before becoming pope.

The current archbishop of Munich and Freising is Cardinal Reinhard Marx, a close ally of Francis and one of the pope’s advisory council members. Marx last year and offered to resign, saying he felt it necessary to “share the responsibility for the catastrophe of the sexual abuse by Church officials over the past decades,” which included institutional and systemic failure. But Francis rejected Marx’s request to step down, saying that he should instead continue as a “shepherd” and carry out reforms.

Marx had been scheduled to give a short statement on Thursday afternoon, but his office has since said it will give a fuller response next week.

“Due to the expected scope of the report, which covers the period from 1945 to 2019, it will take time to deal with the content,” it said.

Morris reported from Berlin.