A pope who redefined clerical sex abuse

Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News) [Hong Kong]

January 6, 2023

By Father Shay Cullen

As an academic, Benedict XVI could not lead the clean-up but admitted that ‘mistakes have been made’ and apologized

Pope Benedict XVI has gone to his eternal rest after a life of service, teaching and ruling the Catholic Church. He was pope from April 19, 2005, until his resignation on Feb. 28, 2013. Many remember him as a much revered and greatly respected priest, bishop and pope. He has been lauded by many on the conservative side of the Catholic Church.

Before becoming pope he was known as Joseph Ratzinger. Of German nationality, he became a priest in 1951 and later made a bishop in 1977 and pope in 2005. As priest, bishop and cardinal he was a renowned academic and theologian and author of 66 books, three encyclical letters on love (2005), hope (2007), and “charity in truth” (2009).

He was a conservative traditional pope and reinstated the pre-Vatican II Latin liturgy with Mass in Latin, later reversed by Pope Francis.

Although a kind and thoughtful person with a wide theological reputation he was unable to cope with the reality of the widespread child sexual abuse by priests in the Church like many bishops today. The stark reality was totally repugnant for a theologian who had taught and preached and campaigned against modern secularism and sexual promiscuity.

He was against liberation theology, a movement in the Church that taught Gospel values of social justice, compassion and the active defense of human rights and the formation of basic Christian communities. Cardinal Ratzinger rejected this challenging movement in the Church that was led by progressive bishops and socially committed priests and laypeople and was widespread in Latin America and the Philippines.

Benedict challenged all liberal movements, anti-celibacy, women priests, divorce, contraception HIV-Aids, and rights for gay people, as manifestations of an age of sinfulness that had abandoned Christianity — as if the world had opted for the rule of Satan.

Benedict had built up a theological fortress around the reputation and the elevated status of the priesthood by calling the priest the representative of God on earth, placing him on a pedestal.

The priest was for Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger a model of human sanctity and bishops and the reputation of the institutional Church were on an even higher pedestal. He believed it seems that they could do no wrong and some bishops apparently believe it too.

The very suggestion that clerical child abuse was widespread was anathema and a priest, let alone a bishop or a cardinal could sexually molest, rape and abuse children was unthinkable, abhorrent, inadmissible and denied for some time.

The Vatican for years dismissed clerical child abuse claims as false, frame-ups, or as vicious attacks on the Church in retaliation for the anti-secular critical statements and writings of Cardinal Ratzinger.

He had been appointed by Pope St. John Paul II as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Nov. 25, 1981, and was a strict enforcer of “the doctrine on the faith and morals throughout the Catholic world.”

Yet there were hundreds, if not thousands, of credible reports and evidence of heinous crimes of child sexual abuse by priests piling up on his desk. The Vatican and Cardinal Ratzinger who had branded homosexuality “an intrinsic moral evil” were now being criticized for ignoring the child victims of clerical sexual abuse.

A shocked and outraged Catholic Church demanded answers as to why priests could commit heinous crimes against children and not be held to account. Why bishops could cover up the crimes and enjoy impunity from the Vatican office that was supposed to hold them to account and failed to turn them over to the civil authorities to face justice.

Cardinal Ratzinger was shocked and conflicted as his belief in a sinless priesthood was crumbling. It was as if scales were being torn from his eyes. He was reluctant to part with them and see the truth. The evidence of horrendous priestly child abuse that he was obliged to study and decide upon was a stab to the heart. When his friend, Pope St. John XXIII, passed away he was elected pope to succeed him in 2005. 

Faced with the growing outcry he admitted that there were crimes by priests that had been covered up and he called it “filth” in the Church. He removed 400 priests from the priesthood but many remained untouched. Bishops that covered up child abuse by their priests were not held to account other than being allowed to resign.

Sadly, he was unable to establish any protocols to address the needs and healing of victims although Benedict did meet with child victims. He began an investigation into child abuse in the Irish Church that resulted in the resignation of several bishops.

He did however redefine the Church’s definition of clerical child sex abuse as a crime against the faith and against the person, before it was a crime against chastity not against an individual child.

The darling of the Vatican, Reverend Marcial Maciel, a notorious pedophile, was finally forced by Benedict to retire “to a life of prayer and penitence.” He was never brought to account or charged despite dozens of victims giving testimony.

Then a financial corruption scandal was revealed in the Vatican. Millions of dollars were unaccounted for and cardinals were involved, it was exposed in news reports.

Benedict’s own personal assistant Paolo Gabriele, 46, stole important documents from his office that recorded corrupt practices and sold them to the media. They contained revelations of alleged corruption in the Vatican Bank. He said the pope did not know what was going on around him.

Gabriele was charged and jailed in the Vatican cells. He was soon pardoned by Pope Benedict. He died of a mysterious illness aged 54 in November 2020. Perhaps he knew too much about the real criminals.

A massive investigation followed. A huge dossier detailing corruption and hundreds more sex crimes by clergy, some in the Vatican itself, was presented to Pope Benedict. It was the last straw. He had had enough. His belief and ideal of a perfect priesthood and image of the Holy Church were shattered.

Benedict had the insight and wisdom to know that at the age of 85, he could not deal with such corruption. As an academic, he could not lead the clean-up as was his duty.

He announced his resignation, on Feb. 11, 2013, citing a “lack of strength of mind and body.”

That generous and wise decision, the first papal resignation in 600 years, made it possible for Pope Francis to be elected and lead the People of God as the first progressive and liberal pope in history. We can thank Pope Benedict XVI for that.

But it was not over yet. In January 2022, while in retirement in the Vatican, an investigative report on child sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Munich from 1945 to 2019 commissioned by the Catholic Archbishop of Munich was released. Retired Pope Benedict was named as having allowed four priests accused of child abuse to continue in ministry and to have misled investigators in writing.

He apologized and humbly said, “mistakes have been made.” His legacy as a theologian, author and humble man of God will live on.

Father Shay Cullen is an Irish Columban missionary who has worked in the Philippines since 1969. In 1974, he founded the Preda Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to protecting the rights of women and children and campaigning for freedom from sex slavery and human trafficking.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.