Retired Pope Benedict asked forgiveness Tuesday for any “grievous faults” in his handling of clergy sex abuse cases, but admitted to no personal or specific wrongdoing after an independent report criticized his actions in four cases while he was archbishop of Munich, Germany.
“I have had great responsibilities in the Catholic Church. All the greater is my pain for the abuses and the errors that occurred in those different places during the time of my mandate,” the retired pope said.
Benedict, 94, was responding to a Jan. 20 report from a German law firm that had been commissioned by the German church to look into how cases of sexual abuse were handled in the Munich archdiocese between 1945 and 2019. Benedict, then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, headed the archdiocese from 1977 to 1982.
The report’s authors faulted Benedict’s handling of four cases during his time as archbishop, accusing him of misconduct for having failed to restrict the ministry of the priests in the cases even after they had been convicted criminally. The report also faulted his predecessors and successors, estimating that there had been at least 497 abuse victims over the decades and at least 235 suspected perpetrators.
‘Not involved in any coverups’
The Vatican on Tuesday released a letter Benedict wrote to respond to the allegations, alongside a more technical reply from his team of lawyers and advisers who had provided an initial 82-page response to the law firm about his nearly five-year tenure in Munich.
The conclusion of Benedict’s advisers was resolute: “As an archbishop, Cardinal Ratzinger was not involved in any coverup of acts of abuse,” they wrote. Furthermore, they said, the report provided no evidence that Benedict was aware of the criminal history of any of the four priests in question.
Benedict’s response was far more nuanced and spiritual. In the letter, Benedict issued what he called a “confession,” recalling that daily mass begins with believers confessing their sins and asking forgiveness for their faults, even their “grievous faults.” Benedict noted that in his meetings with abuse victims while he was pope, “I have seen at first-hand the effects of a most grievous fault.
“And I have come to understand that we ourselves are drawn into this grievous fault whenever we neglect it or fail to confront it with the necessary decisiveness and responsibility, as too often happened and continues to happen,” he wrote. “As in those meetings, once again I can only express to all the victims of sexual abuse my profound shame, my deep sorrow and my heartfelt request for forgiveness.”
The law firm report identified four cases in which Ratzinger was accused of misconduct in failing to act against abusers: Two cases involved priests who offended while Ratzinger was archbishop and were punished by the German legal system but were kept in pastoral ministry without any limits on their ministry. A third case involved a cleric who was convicted by a court outside Germany but was put into service in Munich. The fourth involved a convicted pedophile priest who was allowed to transfer to Munich in 1980 and was later put into ministry. In 1986, that priest received a suspended sentence for molesting a boy.
Benedict’s team earlier clarified an initial “error” in their submission to the law firm that had insisted he was not present at the 1980 meeting in which the priest’s transfer to Munich was discussed. He was there, but the return to ministry was not discussed, they said.
Benedict said he was deeply hurt that the “oversight” about his presence at the meeting had been used to “cast doubt on my truthfulness, and even to label me a liar.” But he said he had been heartened by the letters and gestures of support he had received, including from his successor.
“I am particularly grateful for the confidence, support and prayer that Pope Francis personally expressed to me,” he said.