The controversial legacy Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI leaves behind

PBS NewsHour [Arlington VA]

January 5, 2023

By Nick Schifrin and Teresa Cebrian Aranda


Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was celebrated Thursday at a funeral mass in St. Peter’s Square with his successor, Pope Francis, presiding. Though retired nearly a decade, Benedict was a leading light for conservatives in the church. Others look at his mixed record on child sexual abuse in the church as a failure. Nick Schifrin reports.

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Geoff Bennett: Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was celebrated today at a funeral mass in St. Peter’s Square, with his successor, Pope Francis, presiding.Though retired for nearly a decade, Benedict was a leading light for conservatives in the Catholic Church. Others look at his mixed record on child sexual abuse in the church as a failure.Nick Schifrin looks at his legacy and an historic funeral.

Nick Schifrin:In St. Peter’s Square, a solemn service that hasn’t taken place for more than 200 years, a living pope, Francis, leading the funeral of a former pope, Benedict XVI. Francis called Benedict devoted to God, and summed up his life with Christ’s final words on the cross.Pope Francis, Leader of Catholic Church (through translator): Together, we want to say: Father, into your hands we commend his spirit. Benedict, faithful friend of the bridegroom, may your joy be complete as you hear his voice now and forever.

Nick Schifrin:The ceremony ended with holy communion and one final intimate moment for two popes, before Benedict entered his eternal resting place under the basilica.Pope Benedict XVI was born Joseph Ratzinger in 1927. He was ordained a priest in 1951, became archbishop of Munich in the late ’70s, led the Vatican’s chief doctrine and discipline office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, starting in the early 1980s, until he became pope in 2005.Father Roger Landry, Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts: Catholics will say that Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, is the greatest theologian to occupy the chair of Peter here in Rome in at least 1,600 years.

Nick Schifrin:Father Roger Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, and Columbia University’s Catholic chaplain. He says one of Benedict’s lasting legacies will be what he called the reconciliation of faith and reason.

Father Roger Landry:On the one hand, you have got exaggerated faith separated from reason that can lead to irrationality. And, on the other hand you have an exaggerated secularism that thinks that faith is a danger.What Pope Benedict tried to do in his time before the papacy and during the papacy is unite the two.

Nick Schifrin:Benedict is often labeled a conservative. He reinforced the church’s stances against birth control and married priests. But the label is too simple for a man who, as a young priest, was progressive, says Landry.

Father Roger Landry:While, he remained the same about the ideas he was trying to push. He thought culture went in a much more progressive direction. And, for that reason, he who started out as a progressive was eventually labeled as a conservative.

Nick Schifrin:What do you believe Pope Benedict’s lasting legacy will be?Shaun Dougherty, President, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests: He fell short of his obligations to the vulnerable children within the flock of the Roman Catholic Church.

Nick Schifrin:Shaun Dougherty is the board president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. Starting at the age of 10, he was molested and later raped by his parish priest.He argues Benedict’s is a legacy of failure on church abuse and of shielding abusers.

Shaun Dougherty:Pope Benedict will take the legacy questions as to why he fell short and why he shielded people with him to the grave.The organization as a whole, until they get ahead of it and quit shielding these abusing priests, this will be part of their entire legacy from this point moving forward.

Nick Schifrin:In early 2022, an independent report commissioned by the German church found Archbishop Ratzinger guilty of mishandling four cases of sexual abuse.In a written letter, Benedict asked for forgiveness, but denied wrongdoing.

Shaun Dougherty:We will try and make this as — the least awkward as possible, I guess.

Nick Schifrin:On CBS Evening News, Dougherty and another victim had the rare opportunity to confront their abuser, George Koharchik, with a hidden camera and validate their story.

George Koharchik, Alleged Abuser:I’m certainly sorry for the harm I have caused and ashamed of anything I did back then.

Nick Schifrin:Koharchik was removed from ministry, but never arrested.

Shaun Dougherty:I’m angry, but I have forgiven you a long, long, long time ago for this, right? The part that I cannot forgive is the cover-up. I am — that crushed me.

Nick Schifrin:When Dougherty was 24, he tried to kill himself.

Shaun Dougherty:Part of their legacy is that is the trail of broken survivors that they have left behind them. And they are really not doing anything for us at all. We are left on our own to survive this.

Nick Schifrin:Benedict’s supporters argue he forced the church to confront abuse and threw out hundreds of priests.

Father Roger Landry:I think it’s an unfair characterization to say that he said that he did anything other than trying to root out what should never exist in the priesthood.

Nick Schifrin:Critics would also say that the church itself, under Cardinal Ratzinger and under Pope Benedict, at times shielded some of the people who were committing these crimes.

Father Roger Landry:That’s, unfortunately, absolutely true. And it will always be a shame to the church. That reeducation that has to take place, not to mention the norms and the application of church law to every circumstance, that’s not something, unfortunately, that can happen overnight.

Nick Schifrin:What did change the church overnight, perhaps Benedict’s lasting legacy, his most radical act, as the first pope in 598 years to resign.

Father Roger Landry:He was the tip of the spear there, exercising a lot of the courage that he displayed in other parts of his life.

Nick Schifrin:Until the end, Benedict remained the church’s preeminent traditionalist thinker. Francis has remade the church, but Benedict’s legacy is likely to linger, even as it it’s still debated after his death.For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Nick Schifrin.