The Munich Report and Pope Benedict XVI: A new low

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The Munich Report and Pope Benedict XVI: A new low

By Russell Pollitt SJ

Last week a report was released on sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising. The investigation by German law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl was commissioned and paid for by the Archdiocese headed by Cardinal Reinhard Marx. The report, 1900 pages long, investigates abuse cases and the Church’s response between 1945 and 2019. The lawyers who presented the report dubbed it the “litany of horror” and spoke of the “total failure” of a system until at least 2010. The report identified 497 victims and 235 abusers, but the lawyers believe the numbers could be higher.

In the report, the former Archbishop, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – now known as retired Pope Benedict XVI – is incriminated for mishandling four cases during his tenure between 1977 and 1982.

Benedict XVI submitted an 82-page statement to the law firm denying any wrongdoing. In the statement, the former pope said that he had “no knowledge” of their deeds. He claimed that he was not in a meeting that decided on a priest who was a repeat offender. However, the legal team said they had evidence to suggest that he was present as Archbishop. 

Earlier this week, the former pope (through secretary Archbishop Georg Gänswein) made another statement saying that the first statement was “objectively incorrect” and that he was present at the meeting. The pope emeritus noted that he “would like to emphasize that this was not done out of bad faith, but was the result of an oversight in the editing of his statement.” How this happened will be explained in a statement still to be issued. Gänswein said Benedict was “very sorry for this mistake and asked to be excused.” He goes on to say that “objectively correct, however, remains the statement, documented by the files, that in this meeting no decision was made about a pastoral assignment of the priest in question.”

Minutes after this statement was issued, headlines hit the world: “Ex-pope Benedict admits incorrect information to abuse inquiry” … “Former pope Benedict admits making false claim…”

There is a real and ongoing struggle for the Church to take responsibility and be honest about sex abuse. This debacle shows again how there is a long way to go when it comes to accountability.

Benedict XVI’s credibility and integrity will now be compromised. There is a question about whether the frail 94-year old actually penned the 82-page statement or not. He or his aides should have been acutely aware of the fact that they were doing him a big disservice by not admitting he was present. 

Sadly, from 2001, when then-Cardinal Ratzinger was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was given authority to investigate abuse cases. He himself expedited the process for laicizing priests who were guilty of abuse. After becoming Pope in 2005, he worked to address lingering concerns and publicly addressed the problem. Unfortunately, this will take a back seat as he will now be perceived as the pope who was economical with the truth. We have hit a new low.

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