mishandled four cases of clerical sex abuse during his tenure as an archbishop in Germany, according to an inquiry that faults him for failures to investigate and discipline abusers.
Results of the church-commissioned probe by a Munich law firm, released on Thursday, said that in two cases, priests under the future pope’s authority were criminally prosecuted for abuse yet allowed to remain in priestly ministry. At least one reoffended after being readmitted to service.
The accusations threaten to cast a shadow on the record of the former pope, who for more than two decades before his election oversaw the church’s disciplining of clerical abusers. His alleged mistakes in Munich reinforce the image of an overly disengaged manager whose papacy ended amid accusations of corruption and incompetence among Vatican officials. Defenders say he showed greater awareness of the abuse problem when he left Munich to become the Vatican’s anti-abuse czar and persuaded
St. John Paul II
to toughen church laws on disciplining abusers.
The report by Munich law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl, commissioned by the Archdiocese of Munich-Freising, studies the handling of clerical sex-abuse cases in the archdiocese from 1945 to 2019.
Pope Benedict submitted 82 pages of written responses to questions from the investigators relating to his time as archbishop of Munich-Freising from 1977 to 1982. Benedict, now 94, retired as pope in 2013 and lives in the Vatican.
In 1980, Benedict, who at the time was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, took part in a meeting where it was decided to readmit to ministry a priest accused of abuse, according to Ulrich Wastl, one of the lawyers who conducted the investigation and released the report at a news conference in Munich on Thursday.
Benedict said that he wasn’t in the meeting, but Mr. Wastl said this was implausible. The lawyer cited a protocol of the meeting that indicated Benedict was present and spoke at the meeting.
When that priest’s case became public in 2010, the archdiocese said the future pope hadn’t been aware of the priest’s reinstatement and that his then-top administrator had taken full responsibility.
In his written answers, Benedict denied wrongdoing in all cases, said Martin Pusch, another lawyer involved in the investigation.
Mr. Pusch expressed irritation that Benedict appeared to play down the significance of a case involving a priest who was transferred to his diocese after previously being accused of pedophile acts. Benedict argued that the man had not touched children physically and wasn’t acting in a professional capacity during the abuse.
“The priest was found to be an exhibitionist but not a perpetrator of abuse in the narrow sense,” Mr. Pusch quoted Benedict as having written. “The offenses included exposing his genitals in front of prepubescent girls and in making masturbatory movements … as well as in showing them pornographic materials. None of the cases involved touching … Neither as priest nor as religion teacher did he act improperly in any way,” Benedict wrote, according to Mr. Pusch.
Benedict’s statement that the priest wasn’t a perpetrator of abuse in the narrow sense is incompatible with German laws, including those in force at the time, Mr. Pusch said.
The Vatican, which handles media questions for Benedict, didn’t respond to requests for comment on specific references to Benedict in the report or at the press conference.
Benedict’s answers indicated that he had an excellent memory of decades-old events, the lawyers who conducted the probe said. Much of them read like a legal defense statement that has been helped by legal advisers to Benedict, Mr. Wastl said.
In another case studied during the probe, a cleric convicted outside Germany was taken into service by the archdiocese of Munich, despite Cardinal Ratzinger knowing about his history, said Mr. Pusch.
Pope Benedict rejected any responsibility for that case in his communication with the law firm. But Mr. Pusch said his claim not to have known is difficult to reconcile with the findings of the investigation.
The report also faults other leaders of the archdiocese, including the current archbishop, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who it says also mishandled abuse cases by giving them insufficient scrutiny and transparency.
Marion Westphal, a founding partner of the law firm, said she regretted that Cardinal Marx had declined an invitation to take part in Thursday’s news conference in Munich, given what she called the “understandable interest of those affected by abuse to be acknowledged.”
Cardinal Marx made a televised statement later on Thursday in which he apologized in the name of the diocese. “My thoughts go to those affected by sexual abuse in the Church … I am shaken and ashamed,” the cardinal said. “As the archbishop I am asking in the name of the diocese for forgiveness.”
Cardinal Marx said church officials would study the new report carefully. He acknowledged that perpetrators haven’t been held to account and that people responsible for investigating their crimes in the past had looked away. “The abuse crisis has rattled, and continues to rattle, the church,” he said.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said that the Vatican would give the document “careful and detailed examination” in the coming days.
After serving as archbishop of Munich-Freising, the future Pope Benedict became the head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, overseeing the disciplining of clerical sex abusers world-wide, until his election as pope in 2005.
Scandals over clerical sex abuse have shaken the Catholic Church in Germany, especially since a 2018 report commissioned by Germany’s bishops concluded that priests in the country had abused at least 3,677 minors over seven decades.
That report inspired a series of meetings of German bishops and laity, beginning in 2020 and scheduled to run until next year. They are considering a range of possible overhauls to the church, including the blessing of same-sex unions, the ordination of women clergy and a loosening of the celibacy requirement for priests.
In June, Cardinal Marx offered his resignation to
as a way of taking responsibility for the church’s institutional failure to prevent clerical sex abuse, but the pope told him to remain in office and pursue reform.
The abuse crisis has also touched the Archdiocese of Cologne, Germany’s largest. Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne drew criticism in 2020 for withholding from publication a report on the archdiocese’s historical handling of sex abuse, produced by the same law firm responsible for Thursday’s Munich report.
Cardinal Woelki commissioned and published a second report by a different law firm, which found numerous errors in handling of abuse cases by archdiocesan officials.
A Vatican investigation into the matter found that the cardinal hadn’t covered up abuse but had made major mistakes regarding communications on the matter, prompting him to take a six-month leave of absence that will end in March.
Earlier this week, Archbishop Stefan Hesse of Hamburg became the first German bishop to testify in court on a sex-abuse case, regarding his former role as head of personnel in the Archdiocese of Cologne.
Archbishop Hesse said that he had erred in 2010 when he failed to report an accused abuser to the Vatican as required by the church law. The priest was returned to ministry and is alleged to have abused at least one minor after that.
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