Irish Catholic priests and bishops will never forget Pope Benedict XVI’s scorching letter from March 2010 saying their action – and inaction – on clerical sexual child abuse had “obscured the light of the Gospel” in Ireland “to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing”.
On Thursday the now retired pope and former Cardinal Ratzinger was confronted with his own action – and inaction – in his four years as archbishop of Munich until 1982, with potentially vast consequences for German Catholics and the fractured global church.
What makes the Munich church abuse report so important is not just that a former pope has to defend his own record as bishop, but that his 82-page written defence is available for all – with knowledge of German – to read.
After expressions of remorse to victims of clerical abuse he attacks investigators for “a remarkable level of bias” that moves “into the realm of subjective evaluation or even cheap propaganda”.
When quizzed on five concrete cases he retreats into legal hairsplitting and denies knowledge or responsibility – or both simultaneously.
He claims a “vague memory” – but no detailed knowledge – of an exhibitionist priest who was given two criminal sentences during Ratzinger’s time as archbishop and moved into a private Catholic school.
No church law
Investigators describe as “divorced from reality” Ratzinger’s claims to have no detailed knowledge of the priest’s two criminal convictions. Similarly objectionable is his claim that, because the priest’s sexualised exhibitionist acts were carried out “in front of” and not “with” victims, there was no church law to use against him.
In a second case, despite indications to the contrary in diocesan files, the former pope denies ever meeting a priest who moved to Munich with a child abuse conviction and was later removed for bathing naked with altar servers.
In another case from the early 1980s, the former pope denies detailed knowledge or involvement in a decision to keep on a priest who had abused and photographed children – and was later convicted.
Case by case, investigators point out how much crossed his desk and the church laws available at the time but not deployed. “His conviction that anything of which he has no memory did not happen seems to the investigators as neither credible nor sound,” they note.
“Emeritus Pope Benedict clearly put church and priestly interests ahead of the interests of injured parties,” the report concludes. “The readiness of Benedict XVI to reflect self-critically on his own role and (at least co-)responsibility . . . is not apparent.”