Mixed reactions to Pope Emeritus abuse letter

The Tablet [Market Harborough, England]

February 16, 2022

By Christa Pongratz-Lippitt

In last week’s letter, Benedict XVI acknowledged the Church’s past errors in dealing with abuse.

Reactions in Germany to Pope Emeritus Benedict’s 8 February letter of apology for the handling of abuse cases in Munich during his 1977-82 time as archbishop have been mixed.

Benedict was accused in a report on the archdiocese released on 20 January of failing to take action in four cases of alleged sexual abuse. In an 82-page initial statement on the report, Benedict had denied in three places that he had taken part in an important meeting in January 1980. On 24 January, he admitted that, despite the earlier statements to the contrary, he had indeed taken part in the January 1980 meeting and apologised for the “editing” error.

In last week’s letter of 8 February Benedict acknowledged past failings of the Catholic Church in confronting clergy sexual abuse under his watch. “Each individual case of sexual abuse is appalling and irreparable. The victims of sexual abuse have my deepest sympathy and I feel great sorrow for each individual case,” he wrote. “I can only express to all the victims of sexual abuse my profound shame, my deep sorrow and my heartfelt request for forgiveness.” 

The German bishops’ conference president, Georg Bätzing, immediately welcomed Benedict’s letter. “The Pope Emeritus said he would comment and now he has. I am thankful that he has and he deserves respect for doing so”, Bishop Bätzing said on Twitter.

The Archbishop of Munich, Cardinal Reinhard Marx emphasised that the archdiocese of Munich and he himself were taking the Munich Report “very seriously indeed” for the very reason that it concentrated particularly on personal and institutional responsibility amongst archdiocesan leadership. Marx himself was criticised in the report.

One of the few other bishops to speak out was Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, who was critical of Benedict’s letter. His archdiocesan commissioner for abuse issues was receiving letters from victims expressing their “great disappointment and even outrage” at what Benedict had written concerning his time as Archbishop of Munich and this was “most worrying”, Overbeck told the Catholic Neues Ruhrwort.

Director of the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care (IADC) at the Gregorian, Fr Hans Zollner SJ commented: “I see that he first thanks his friends [Benedict thanked his team of advisers in the letter] and only then mentions the victims.” However, Zollner added that he did not want to judge what the 94-year-old Pope Emeritus had written.

The spokesman for the bishops’ conference’s Victims’ Council, Johannes Norpoth, said Benedict’s letter was “fundamentally a good thing” but it had come far too late.  

Interviewed by dpa, canon lawyer Thomas Schüller pointed out that while Benedict spoke about mistakes that had been made and offences committed, he did not refer to his own personal behaviour. 

However, the theologian and bestselling author Manfred Lütz told dpa: “Pope Benedict as it were takes political responsibility – with no ifs and buts – for the terrible things that happened when he was Archbishop of Munich.”