(The interview) – An in-depth report published last week claims that former Pope Benedict XVI allowed four abusive priests in Munich to remain in the ministry. The pope, then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, led the German archdiocese from 1977 to 1982.
The 1,900-page audit was commissioned by the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, but was carried out by independent researchers. It covers the period from 1945 to 2019 and lists 235 suspected clergy who were perpetrators of sexual abuse and at least 497 minors who were victims.
Given the status of Benedict – he was pope from 2005 to 2013, until his historic resignation due to ill health – the news has put extra control on the roles of top leaders in allowing abusers to remain unpunished. It also raises the classic questions of what Benedict knew, and when.
As a journalist, I treated Ratzinger to Rome in the 1980s and wrote a biography of him in 2006. Today, as director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University, I see this episode as an opportunity to explore the fitful evolution of to understand the church about dealing with abuse.
An influential role
After leaving Munich in 1982, Ratzinger came to Rome to serve as the supreme defender of the teachings of Pope John Paul II. For 23 years he led the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an organ with the task of defending Catholic doctrine, and arguably the most influential department in the Vatican.
As head, Ratzinger had a say in developing the church’s response to the increasingly public crisis of sex abuse. John Paul consulted Ratzinger on important decisions, and large documents from other departments of the Vatican required his approval, or imprimatur, before they could be published.
Ratzinger’s initial responses to abuse cases reflected his record in Munich. In one case, for example, in 1985, he refused an appeal to defrock, or “laicize,” an American priest who sexually abused children, even though the priest himself, like the bishop, asked for it.
One of Ratzinger’s successors at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, defended his mentor by arguing that in the 1970s and 1980s neither the church nor society understood child abuse in general well. “It was thought that therapy could solve the problem. Today we know that this is useless for these criminals,” he said after the release of the Munich report.
‘Weakness of faith’
Another important factor that many critics blame for opposing the hierarchy against punishing clergy is an attitude called “clericalism,” or treating priests as superior. Wild ds. Donald Cozzens, a Cleveland priest, seminary director, and psychologist who published a book on the priesthood in 2000, defined clericalism as an attitude of “privileges and rights” among clergy, elites who “think they are different from the rest.” of the faithful. “
Ratzinger and many other church leaders have viewed the issue more as a spiritual one. “I think the essential point is a weakness of faith,” Ratzinger admitted in 2003. He also blamed the secular world, especially what he called the “unprecedented” moral breakdown of the 1960s and 1970s, and the acceptance of homosexuality.
Two studies by professors at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice showed that abuse began to grow in the 1960s and declined sharply in the 1980s. But the researchers note that nearly 44% of the accused abusers were prosecuted before 1960 and reject the idea that gay men are to blame. Moreover, historians have often pointed out that pedophilia and other sexual abuse by clergy are nothing new, but at least date to the 11th century.
When The Boston Globe’s Spotlight series finally broke out in January 2002, American bishops sought to establish a zero-tolerance policy for abusers and bishops who were held accountable. The Vatican declined, although U.S. bishops were able to adopt a relatively strong system that would lay out procedures for the removal of accused priests.
Ratzinger also went on to minimize the scale of the scandal, arguing in November 2002 that “less than one percent” of priests were guilty of abuse and the media blaming “a planned campaign” for “the church. to discredit “. The real figure was more than 4% nationally.
a sudden shift
The previous year, however, Ratzinger had persuaded John Paul to let his office take the lead on all abuses worldwide to expedite trials and dismiss the culprits. The subsequent flood of cases seemed to have an effect: when John Paul died in April 2005 and Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI, he moved quickly to start hundreds of abusers. He also apologized to victims and became the first pope ever to meet face to face with mentally abused victims. This was a sea change for the church, and for Benedict.
But it only went so far. Although Benedict publicly dismissed a bishop he considered too liberal, he was not so assertive in taking action against bishops suspected of covering up abuse or even being abusive. An important example is the case of Theodore McCarrick, a former cardinal in Washington, DC.
Accusations that McCarrick had abused children arose in July 2018 and led to an investigation that showed that Benedict knew of other allegations against McCarrick of sexual abuse with adults, but took no public action.
After Francis was elected pope in 2013, he removed McCarrick’s title from his cardinal and dismissed him. McCarrick pleaded not guilty to charges of sexually assaulting a teenager in the 1970s.
Francis also began dismissing other bishops for cover for abuse and began instituting a system of accountability.
Benedict arrives at the end of his life, living in seclusion in a quiet monastery within the walls of the Vatican. Aside from the damage to his reputation, he is unlikely to receive any sanctions for his actions decades ago in Munich.
But this episode helps illustrate how the Catholic Church came to this point and what remains to be done. And it could swing cardinals in the next conclave to elect a pope who has a stronger record of abuse.
(David Gibson, Director, Center on Religion and Culture, Fordham University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)