Conservatives defended former Pope Benedict against charges of mishandling sexual abuse cases decades ago, but victim groups and experts said the findings of a German report had tarnished the legacy of one of Catholicism’s most renowned theologians.
The report, commissioned by the German Church and published on Thursday, said the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger failed to take action against clerics in four cases when he was the archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982.
Benedict denied wrongdoing over the cases in an 82-page written statement sent to the investigators but Martin Pusch, one of the lawyers who presented the report, said that while the former pope claimed ignorance of some events “in our opinion, that is difficult to reconcile with the documentation.”
Benedict, 94, infirm and living in the Vatican, said through his secretary that he had not yet read the entire report, but would give it “the necessary attention”.
Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, a fellow German and former Vatican doctrinal head himself, told the Corriere della Sera newspaper that there were people “in Germany and elsewhere who want to damage” the former pope.
“It’s obvious that if there were errors, he didn’t know about them,” said Mueller, who has been very critical of Pope Francis. He said Benedict “did not deliberately do anything wrong.”
Benedict, who resigned in 2013, remains a hero to conservatives who are at odds with Francis’ style of a more open and welcoming Church.
Conservative Italian newspapers ran editorials on Friday defending Benedict and attacking the report. Libero said Benedict had been “abandoned” by today’s Vatican officials and Il Foglio cast doubt on the evidence in the German investigation.
But Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of the abuse tracking group BishopAccountability.org, said in an email that Munich prosecutors should follow up on the report.
“They should subpoena abuse files, and collect testimonies from victims and witnesses. Former archdiocesan officials, including Pope Benedict, should be compelled to testify under oath,” she said.
“HIS PERSONAL WATERLOO”
As pope, Benedict enacted stronger measures than his predecessors against sexual abuse, issuing new guidelines and defrocking many abusers during his papacy.
He punished Father Marcial Maciel, the late Mexican founder of the Legionaries of Christ religious order, who was one of the Church’s most notorious abusers. The previous pope, John Paul, refused to believe numerous reports about Maciel’s crimes.
“It (the German report) certainly sheds some bad light on his legacy in regard to dealing with cases of abuse (while in Germany but) it is not a judgement on the whole of his legacy as a theologian, as head of the CDF (the Vatican’s doctrinal office) and as pope,” said Father Hans Zollner, a German expert on child protection at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University.
“It is one element in this, it is an important one, and the danger is that … the other very important and highly esteemed elements of his legacy would be put in question or at least will not shine as brightly as they could,” Zollner told Reuters.
Zollner said that after reading the nearly 2,000 page report, the former pope should make a statement and, if necessary, “ask for forgiveness for whatever he has to ask for”.
Thomas Schüller, a professor of Church law at Muenster University, told Der Spiegel that the report had caused lasting damage to Benedict’s reputation. “This is his personal Waterloo,” Schüller said.
Alberto Melloni, a Church historian and university professor, told Reuters that in today’s highly polarised Church, the report would only confirm existing views of the former pope and his legacy.
“His defenders will continue defending him and his detractors will continue throwing mud,” Melloni said.
In an address on Friday, Pope Francis promised to push ahead with punishing abuse and said the Church remained “committed to bringing justice to its victims”. He did not mention the German report.
Reporting by Philip Pullella Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky
Photo – Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (C) . EPA-EFE/PHILIPP GUELLAND