After an independent assessment condemned his behavior in four cases while archbishop of Munich, Germany, retired Pope Benedict XVI requested forgiveness Tuesday for any “grievous flaws” in his treatment of clerical sex abuse cases, but acknowledged to no personal or particular wrongdoing.
“In the Catholic Church, I’ve had a lot of obligations. “My anguish is compounded by the excesses and errors that occurred in those many locations during my pontificate,” the retired pope stated.
Benedict, 94, was reacting to a study released on Jan. 20 by a German law company commissioned by the German Catholic Church to investigate how accusations of sexual abuse were handled in the Munich archdiocese between 1945 and 2019. From 1977 until 1982, Benedict, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, presided over the archdiocese.
The authors of the study criticized Benedict’s treatment of four incidents during his time as archbishop, accusing him of wrongdoing for failing to restrict the priests’ ministry even after they had been convicted criminally. The study also chastised his predecessors and successors, stating that at least 497 abuse victims and 235 suspected perpetrators had been reported throughout the decades.
On Tuesday, the Vatican released a letter written by Benedict in response to the claims, as well as a more technical answer from his legal team, which had previously delivered an 82-page response to the law firm concerning his almost five-year term in Munich.
Benedict’s attorneys were certain in their conclusion: “As archbishop, Cardinal Ratzinger was not engaged in any cover-up of acts of abuse,” they concluded. They accused the report’s writers of misinterpreting their contribution and claimed that there was no indication that Benedict was aware of any of the four priests’ criminal histories.
Benedict’s reaction was significantly more subtle and spiritual, yet he went on to praise his legal staff in great detail before ever addressing the claims or the abuse victims.
Benedict wrote a “confession” in the letter, emphasizing that every Mass starts with people admitting their sins and begging forgiveness for their flaws, including their “grievous failings.” “I have experienced firsthand the results of a very heinous mistake,” Benedict said of his conversations with abuse victims when he was pope.
“And I’ve come to see that we too are sucked into this awful error anytime we ignore it or fail to tackle it with the essential decisiveness and responsibility,” he wrote. “As in past sessions, I can only convey my terrible humiliation, genuine regret, and earnest desire for forgiveness to all victims of sexual assault.”
Ratzinger was accused of misbehavior in neglecting to act against abusers in four incidents, according to the law firm report: Two incidents involved priests who sinned when Ratzinger was archbishop and were sentenced to prison by the German judicial system, but were allowed to continue serving in pastoral ministry with no restrictions.
A third instance included a cleric who was convicted by a court outside of Germany but was later placed in ministry in Munich, while a fourth case featured a convicted pedophile priest who was permitted to relocate to Munich in 1980 and afterwards placed in ministry. The priest was given a suspended sentence for abusing a kid in 1986.
Benedict’s team had already explained a “mistake” in their original submission to the legal firm, which claimed Ratzinger was not present at a 1980 meeting where the priest’s relocation to Munich was discussed. They stated Ratzinger was present, but his return to ministry was not mentioned.
Benedict expressed his disappointment that his participation in the conference had been used to “throw doubt on my truthfulness, and even to label me a liar” due to a “oversight.” He claimed, however, that the letters and gestures of support he had received, especially from his successor, had given him hope.
“I am especially thankful for Pope Francis’ personal trust, support, and prayer,” he stated.
In the aftermath of the law firm report, the Vatican defended Benedict’s record, recalling that he was the first pope to meet with victims of abuse, that he issued strict guidelines to punish priests who raped children, and that he directed the church to pursue a path of humility in seeking forgiveness for its clerics’ crimes.
Benedict’s stint as head of the Holy See’s doctrinal office, from 1982 until his election as Pope in 2005, was the subject of the Vatican’s argument.
After seeing bishops throughout the globe transporting rapists from parish to parish rather than penalizing them under the church’s in-house canon law, Ratzinger commanded all allegations of clerical sex abuse to be forwarded to his office for processing in 2001 when he was prefect of the doctrinal office. Benedict defrocked over 400 priests for abuse during the last two years of his papacy.
Benedict concluded his letter by reflecting on his legacy, noting that he is nearing the conclusion of his life and will be judged by God shortly.
He wrote, “I shall soon find myself before the last judgment of my life.” “Even though I have cause for dread and trepidation as I reflect on my long life, I am cheerful because I trust firmly that the Lord is not only the righteous judge, but also the friend and brother who has already suffered for my transgressions.”