Catholic News Service - USCCB [Washington DC]
February 13, 2022
[Photo above: A large poster is attached to a van in Munich Jan. 19, 2022, depicting retired Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, and Archbishop Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, during a demonstration in protest of the church’s handling of sexual abuse. (Credit: CNS photo / Dieter Mayr, KNA)]
The latest statement by retired Pope Benedict XVI on the Munich abuse report has triggered a wide array of reactions. In Germany, the response has been largely critical, and most abuse survivors expressed disappointment.
The German Catholic news agency KNA reported Richard Kick, spokesman for the Munich victims’ advisory board, described the letter as “truly unspeakable” and lacking in empathy. He said the former pope only knew his own point of view and had taken refuge in the belief in God’s verdict as the “final judge.”
Theologian Doris Reisinger, an abuse survivor, said the letter amounted to “downright mockery of the victims.” Above all, she criticized the terms Pope Benedict chose for Jesus as a “friend,” “brother” and “advocate.” To the ears of the victims, she said, that sounded as if Jesus “is not on their side, but on the side of those who have tormented, ignored and hurt them over all these decades.”
The victims’ association “Eckiger Tisch” (Non-Round Table) said it saw the letter as further evidence of the “permanent relativization of the church in matters of abuse.” Instead of taking responsibility themselves, church leaders saddled the victims with responsibility “if they aren’t able to adequately appreciate this kind of expression of concern.”
Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors since its creation, said Pope Benedict’s statement was personal but too general. Instead of making very special theological references, he should have spoken more specifically about his time as archbishop of Munich and Freising, Father Zollner told KNA.
He also said the retired pope wrote the letter in the wrong order. If Pope Benedict had started out by seeking forgiveness from the victims and then moved on to thank his friends, his letter would certainly have been better received, he said.
In a personal response to a law firm’s January report on decades of abuse in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, Pope Benedict acknowledged that church leaders shared responsibility for sexual abuse.
In the two-and-a-half page letter, he expressed “my profound shame, my deep sorrow and my heartfelt request for forgiveness” to all the victims of sexual abuse.
At the same time, he rejected the accusation that he had actively covered up cases of abuse when he was Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger of Munich from 1977 to 1982. He also said he had neither deceived nor lied in his initial testimony on the abuse report.
His erroneous initial statement, later corrected, that he had not participated in an important meeting on Jan. 15, 1980, had been an “oversight” that “I hope may be excused,” Pope Benedict said in the letter. “To me it proved deeply hurtful that this oversight was used to cast doubt on my truthfulness, and even to label me a liar.”
The president of the bishops’ conference, Limburg Bishop Georg Bätzing, welcomed the statement in a tweet but did not address its substance. He said Pope Benedict had promised to respond to the report and had now fulfilled that promise. “I am grateful for that, and he deserves respect for it.”
Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen voiced skepticism, KNA reported. He said he feared the words would “be of little help to victims in their process of coming to terms” with abuse. He added that he was concerned to see that victims of sexual violence had reacted “with disappointment and in some cases with indignation.” Their view should “carry a lot of weight” in the reappraisal of abuse, he said.
The president of the Central Committee of German Catholics called the apology insufficient. Irme Stetter-Karp said the retired pope’s remarks remained “relatively general” and “empathy toward the victims is lacking.”
Reactions to the letter in the German media were also predominantly critical. A number of commentators said the retired pope was hiding behind the church and his legal advisers. He was also accused of portraying himself as a victim of the media before addressing the victims of abuse. His request for an apology was “half-hearted” because he still remained very vague when it came to his personal responsibility, commentators said. They noted he had chosen passive formulations, for example when he wrote that “we ourselves are drawn into this grievous fault” or that offenses and errors had “occurred.”
In Rome, German Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Pope Benedict’s private secretary, defended the former pope.
“Those who know him know that the accusation of lying is absurd. One must distinguish between an error and a lie,” said Gänswein. He also highlighted the retired pope’s past statements and actions on the issue of pedophilia. Pope Benedict had been the first pope to strive for transparency in this field, said the archbishop.