Church scandals are once again the talk of the media, and this time Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is in the crosshairs. On January 20th, the German law firm Westpfahl-Spilker-Wastl (WSW) released a report that documented 497 cases of sexual misconduct against minors in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising that occured between 1945 and 2019. The 1,893 page-long report covered 74 years of abuse and alleged mishandling by Church authorities, and was presented to the public during a press conference. A section of 72 pages, dealing with four cases between 1977 and 1982, attracted most of the media’s attention due to the incrimination of former Pope Benedict XVI, who served as Archbishop Ratzinger of the diocese of Munich and Freising during that time period.
While none of the four cases involved sexual abuse of minors, three of them pertained to the placement of priests in the archdiocese who had a history of abuse in the past. A central argument the lawyers presented in the press conference focused on the likelihood that Ratzinger knew about the history of abuse of the priests in question, a statement for which no proof was given.
Following the press release, on February 8th, the former pope published a personal letter addressing the allegations surrounding the Munich abuse report. The letter was a massive 82-page reply to the section dealing with his tenure in Munich. Alongside Benedict’s letter, a statement by his collaborators was issued, responding to some of the allegations, fact-checking, and making corrections. As Benedict himself acknowledged, he had assistance in the letter’s transcription, a letter that he “would have been unable to write [himself].”
But rather than quell the scandal, Benedict’s efforts caused further agitation. An error in the pope’s statement caught the attention of the media. The letter claimed that Benedict was not present at a meeting of the Ordinariate on 15 January 1980, in which it was decided to place within the Archdiocese the now most notorious of the four priests involved in the scandal. The media pounced on the claim, and called Benedict, who indeed was at the meeting, a liar. The latest statement by fact-checkers confirmed the presence of Ratzinger at the meeting, and explained the mistake as a “transcription error” by one of the friends assisting Benedict in writing his statement. The claim that Benedict had been consciously lying has been rejected.
Other more serious accusations have been put to rest as well. During the press conference of January 20th, the media insinuated that it was “more likely” that Ratzinger knew about the past of one of the priests involved in the scandals. But fact checkers have rejected this claim:
Joseph Ratzinger was neither aware that Priest X. was an abuser, nor that he was included in pastoral activity. The records show that at the meeting of the Ordinariate on January 15th, 1980, it was not decided to engage Priest X. in pastoral activity. The records also show that the meeting in question did not discuss the fact that the priest had committed sexual abuse. It was exclusively a question of the accommodation of the young Priest X. in Munich because he had to undergo therapy there. This request was complied with. During the meeting the reason for the therapy was not mentioned. It was therefore not decided at the meeting to engage the abuser in pastoral work.
When the same priest engaged in exhibitionism during his stay in the Archdiocese of Munich, Priest X. was sentenced by the court and removed from his parish. Benedict merely allowed the psychiatric treatment of the priest to continue in Munich, unaware of his past. No proof to the contrary was given by the report.
In all of the cases in question, Benedict was either unaware of the abusive past of the priests in question or he acted according to the law and to the highest moral standards. In the case of a young priest who came to study in Munich on the request of his uncle, a bishop from another country, the young man was caught swimming naked in the Isar river and was removed from his post and sent back to his home country by Ratzinger as a preventive measure. Another priest that was caught taking photos of girls in the dressing room for a school theater play was immediately taken out of the vicinity of children and deployed in a senior citizen home instead. No act of actual child abuse has been reported in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising during the tenure of Benedict XVI as Archbishop.
In an interview with Exaudi.org, the German author, scholar, and church expert Dr. Michael Hesemann argues that the attacks directed at the pope emeritus aren’t attempts to treat the problem of child abuse in the Church, but are the fruit of a desire “to slander him, to discredit him and everything he taught us as theologian, bishop, cardinal, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctine of the Faith, and as pope.” Hesemann traces the campaign back to the progressive forces in the German Church that are also currently involved in the synodal path. “There are circles in Germany who want a different Church,” he explains, “an anthropocentric Church, more Protestant, more “open to the world.” For them, Pope Benedict is a symbol, a symbol for the “old, theocentric Church.” Hesemann also stresses that the focus on Benedict helps to move the discussion away from the misconduct of some of his successors, specifically Cardinal Marx, who has been the Archbishop of Munich and Freising since 2008.
Contrary to the accusations voiced in the media, it is Benedict who started the process of combatting child abuse in the Church from the moment he became prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in 1982. It took many years, and constant vigilance by Ratzinger to shore up existing structures, which, according to Hesemann, “after the Second Vatican Council [were focused] around the idea that bishops should “heal, not punish,” lest they be considered “rigid and old-fashioned”—a battle Benedict continued as Pope. He employed a strict “zero tolerance policy,” defrocking more than 400 priests over the course of his pontificate for what he referred to as a “perversion of priesthood.”
In his personal letter published on February 8th, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once more asks for forgiveness for the mistakes made. “I have had great responsibilities in the Catholic Church,” he writes, “all the greater is my pain for the abuses and the errors that occurred in those different places during the time of my mandate. Each individual case of sexual abuse is appalling and irreparable. The victims of sexual abuse have my deepest sympathy and I feel great sorrow for each individual case.”
The 94-year old ended his letter with a reflection on his own mortality:
Quite soon, I shall find myself before the final judge of my life. Even though, as I look back on my long life, I can have great reason for fear and trembling, I am nonetheless of good cheer, for I trust firmly that the Lord is not only the just judge, but also the friend and brother who himself has already suffered for my shortcomings, and is thus also my advocate, my “Paraclete”… In this regard, I am constantly reminded of what John tells us at the beginning of the Apocalypse: he sees the Son of Man in all his grandeur and falls at his feet as though dead. Yet He, placing his right hand on him, says to him: “Do not be afraid! It is I… (Rev. 1:12-17)