Wall Street Journal [New York NY]
February 8, 2022
By Francis X. Rocca
Benedict fights to defend his record after report criticized failings during his time as an archbishop
Retired Pope Benedict XVI replied to charges that he mishandled cases of clerical sexual abuse during his tenure as an archbishop in Germany, but his response seemed unlikely to remove the taint that the allegations have left on his record.
In his response, released by the Vatican on Tuesday, the retired pope asked forgiveness for any “grievous fault” he may have incurred, and expressed “profound shame” for failures that occurred during his long career of leadership in the church. But he didn’t admit wrongdoing.
An accompanying document from his lawyers rebutted specific charges of coverup, perjury and insensitivity to abuse victims made against the 94-year-old Benedict last month in a church-sponsored probe on historical sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Munich-Freising. The probe faulted the then-archbishop in several cases for failing to investigate, discipline or remove abusive priests.
Benedict’s lawyers said that in none of the cases in question did the future pope know that the priests were even suspected of sexual abuse. His lawyers also said that an error in his written answers to the Munich investigators, which led to accusations of inaccurate testimony, was due to a “transcription error.”
Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability.org, which tracks abuse cases around the world, described Benedict’s response as “a deep disappointment and missed opportunity.”
“The former pope had the chance to do something brave and history-changing today. He could have become the first pope to admit to deliberate coverup and enabling of sexual abuse. By so doing, he would have set an example of radical truth-telling for other church leaders, including Pope Francis himself,” Ms. Barrett Doyle said.
The Vatican, where the retired pope lives, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
The controversy has left a shadow on Benedict’s legacy of fighting sexual abuse, which was one of the signature causes of his career as a cardinal and pope after he left Munich for the Vatican.
For more than two decades before his election as pope in 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the Vatican’s anti-abuse czar. In that role, he pushed St. John Paul II to strengthen the church’s response to the problem, centralizing prosecution of clerical abuse cases at the Vatican and enhancing penalties to include defrocking, or dismissal from the priesthood.
As pope, Benedict extended the statute of limitations for abuse of minors and Vatican judges during his pontificate hardly ever reduced the sentences of defrocked abusers on appeal.
By contrast with John Paul, who never met with abuse victims, Benedict met several times with groups of victims during his travels, including to the U.S. in 2008.
Even in retirement, he called for more rigor in prosecuting cases of clerical sex abuse by church authorities.
“An overemphasis on the rights of the accused has at times made it practically impossible to convict abusers and that mentality remains prevalent,” he wrote in an essay published in 2019. The same essay stirred controversy by suggesting that much of the blame for the church’s abuse crisis lay with the sexual revolution in wider Western culture.
But the blot on Benedict’s reputation stems from his time as Munich archbishop between 1977 and 1982.
“A calm assessment of his time in Munich shows that he could have and should have made the oversight of priests his priority and scaled back on other engagements. Based on flawed judgment, he trusted fellow priests who let him down, and who covered up abuse and enabled abuse,” said Ulrich Lehner, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.
Mr. Lehner said that Cardinal Ratzinger learned from his mistakes and, as head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, “he did not delegate, but tackled the problem, even against substantial resistance from the pope and other cardinals.”
The Munich probe isn’t the first time that Benedict has stood accused of mishandling cases of abuse. One of the cases in question was reported during Benedict’s pontificate, in 2010. At the time, the Archdiocese of Munich-Freising said that his then-top adviser had taken full responsibility for reinstating a priest with a record of abuse to ministry in 1980.
Clerical sexual abuse has continued to haunt the leadership of the church over the dozen of years since, including in detailed historical studies of the problem in Germany, France and the U.S.
In 2020, a Vatican report showed that three successive popes, including Benedict, had failed to discipline the U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick despite widespread reports of his sexual misconduct. Mr. McCarrick, who has denied wrongdoing, became the first cardinal in modern times to be removed from the priesthood in 2019, after a Vatican court found him guilty of sexual abuse of minors and sexual misconduct with adults.
Write to Francis X. Rocca at firstname.lastname@example.org