Death of Pope Benedict XVI: Statement by


December 31, 2022

By Anne Barrett Doyle

For Immediate Release, 12/31/2022

Pope Benedict XVI will be remembered for his failure to achieve what should have been his job one: to rectify the incalculable harm done to the hundreds of thousands of children sexually abused by Catholic priests. When he resigned as Pope, he left hundreds of culpable bishops in power and a culture of secrecy intact.

The tragedy is that in refusing to enact needed reforms, he ended up hurting the faith he cherished. Had he punished cover-up and abuse as sternly as he did doctrinal violations, the Church’s abuse crisis might have ended under his watch.

Benedict’s public statements on the crisis sparked hope. When he traveled to the US in April 2008, he promised that the Church would do “whatever possible to help, to assist, to heal” victims. In February 2010, meeting with Irish bishops, he called child sexual abuse “heinous.” A month later, in his famous letter to the Irish people, he went further, publicly rebuking the bishops for their weak handling of abusive priests. He had the tone of an appalled bystander, as if their tolerance for child molesters was a shock to him too.

But more than anyone in the Vatican, he knew about the damage done to innocent children. In 1982, when he became head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he moved to the center of the Vatican’s abuse bureaucracy. As Prefect of the CDF, he implemented Pope John Paul II’s policy of not laicizing abusive priests, even when bishops pleaded with him to do so. Two notable instances during his tenure at the CDF: his slowness in defrocking Oakland CA abuser Father Stephen Kiesle and his refusal to laicize Milwaukee priest Father Lawrence Murphy, abuser of 200 boys at a residential school for the deaf.

In Spring 2001, the Pope gave Cardinal Ratzinger and the CDF sole responsibility for abuse cases, and in that role, Cardinal Ratzinger read hundreds of files and became the Vatican’s most knowledgeable and powerful person on this issue.

In the last year of Benedict’s life, a church-commissioned investigation in Germany published a report stating that Benedict himself had been complicit with abusers. As archbishop of Munich and Freising from 1977 to 1982, he allegedly allowed four abusive priests to remain in ministry. These recent revelations put his 2010 rebuke of Irish bishops in a troubling light. Benedict too had been lenient toward offending priests; he himself appears to have enabled crimes against children.

Benedict’s public response to the Munich revelations was hailed by some as an apology. Yet he acknowledged no personal responsibility and distanced himself from the cover-up, vaguely acknowledging a collective “we” who had committed some unspecified fault: “All the greater is my pain for the abuses and the errors that occurred in those different places during the time of my mandate.”

In fairness, Benedict responded effectively on several occasions. The consolidation of all child sexual abuse cases under the CDF is seen as as his achievement. It appears to have streamlined the process of disciplining errant priests and led to a significant increase in laicizations of abusers, especially when Benedict became Pope.

He also gets credit for disciplining the powerful founder of the Legion of Christ, Marcial Maciel, a choice John Paul II repeatedly refused to make. At the same time, context is relevant here. By the time Benedict finally punished Maciel, many of his victims had come forward, and the evidence against him was not only overwhelming but public, thanks to investigative journalists Jason Berry and Gerald Renner.

As Pope, Benedict could have done much more. He could have made “zero tolerance” the universal rule of the Catholic Church. He could have forced the resignation of bishops who had enabled sexual predators. He could have decreed that every bishop post on his website the names, assignment histories, and alleged crimes of accused priests. He could have made the CDF transparent in its handling of cases, instead of the black box that it remains to this day. He could have acted on the Vatican’s vast knowledge of these cases, instead of leaving the work to the survivors, investigative reporters, grand juries in the US, government commissions in Ireland and Australia, and church-hired investigators in France and Germany.

It’s clear to even his critics that Benedict was motivated by a zeal to protect the faith he loved. The sad irony is that he ended up wounding it further. His misplaced priorities caused countless Catholics to abandon the Church. His failure to enact real change in the Church’s handling of sexually abusive priests will be his significant and tragic legacy.


Launched in 2003 by lay Catholics in Boston, is a Waltham-based, comprehensive archive and data center focused on the worldwide sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church. It has compiled an online database of 7,500 publicly accused US priests. Its online library contains hundreds of thousands of church records, legal documents, and media reports. Its mission is to give the public one-stop access to information about the crisis throughout the world. An independent non-profit, is not a victim’s group, does not advocate specific church reforms, and is not affiliated with any advocacy or religious group.


Anne Barrett Doyle, Co-Director,, 781-439-5208
Terence McKiernan, Founder and President,, 508-479-9304