VATICAN CITY (CNS) – The late Pope Benedict XVI’s disgust over the abuse scandals marring the church was made evident even before his election as pope.
In his forceful Way of the Cross meditations, drafted in the weeks before his election as pope in 2005, he wrote for the world to hear: “How much filth there is in the church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him.”
That straightforward attitude, coupled with sympathy for victims and commitment to prevention, marked much of the pope’s subsequent eight years as pope.
“Pope Benedict XVI will certainly be remembered for his extraordinary reply and response to the very sad phenomenon of sexual abuse of minors by the clergy,” Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta once told Vatican Radio. The archbishop was promoter of justice at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, handling accusations of clerical sex abuse from 2002 to 2012.
Pope Benedict’s approach to the scandal was to see it as a result of serious sin that polluted the church; the process of cleansing must be serious and profound, he said, but it also must acknowledge Christ’s power to heal and to strengthen the church.
Although he mostly stayed out of public view in retirement, in April 2019, the former pope published what he described as “notes” on the abuse crisis, tracing the roots of the scandal to a loss of a firm faith and moral certainty that began in the 1960s. The church’s response, he insisted, must focus on a recovery of a sense of faith and of right and wrong.
Late into his retirement, he faced renewed criticism after the release of a report in early 2022 that looked at how known cases of sexual abuse against minors were handled in the Archdiocese of Munich from 1945 to 2019. The study, conducted by a law firm for the archdiocese, said then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger mishandled abuse allegations on four occasions during his time as archbishop of Munich and Freising, from 1977 to 1982. The pope and a small team of legal experts denied wrongdoing in all the cases and disagreed with the final conclusions in the study, which included an 82-page testimony and evidence compiled by the retired pope’s team.
A Vatican News editorial defended Pope Benedict, noting how, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Ratzinger “promulgated very harsh norms against clerical abusers” and enacted special measures that had not existed before to improve the way allegations were handled.
As pope, it said, he paved the way for a change in mentality in how the church treats survivors who, instead of being welcomed and accompanied, often were marginalized and considered “enemies” of the church. He was “the first pope to meet several times with victims of abuse,” it said, and he repeatedly emphasized the need for the Catholic Church to ask forgiveness from victims and from Jesus, “who has always been on the side of the victims and never of the executioners.”
Though nearly 95 years old and frail, Pope Benedict drafted a two-page letter in response to the Munich abuse report, expressing his deep hurt that an unintentional editing error in testimony written on his behalf would lead to the assumption he was a liar.
“Each individual case of sexual abuse is appalling and irreparable,” he also wrote in that letter in early February 2022.
“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 wrote.
“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,” he said.
From 2001, when St. John Paul II charged the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — headed by then-Cardinal Ratzinger — with the authority to take over cases from local bishops for investigation, Pope Benedict was aware of many examples of abuse. It was his office in 2003 that expedited the process for laicizing priests guilty of sexually abusing minors.
After his election in 2005, Pope Benedict worked to address lingering concerns.
He approved a decision to sanction Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, who was accused of sexually abusing minors. Though no canonical process was begun against the late priest, he was banned from exercising his priestly ministry publicly in 2006 following a Vatican investigation.
As new revelations of abuse hit the news, particularly in Europe, Pope Benedict and his top aides looked for ways to refine policies for handling accusations and strengthening child protection programs worldwide.
He approved the revision of church law in 2010 on handling priestly sex abuse cases, streamlining disciplinary measures, extending the statute of limitations and defining child pornography as an act of sexual abuse of a minor. The revisions codified and clarified practices that had been implemented through special permissions granted over the past decade and made them part of universal law.
Pope Benedict also met personally with survivors of abuse in Australia, Malta, Great Britain and the United States, acknowledging the horror they had suffered and the scandal of a slow church response.
In a pastoral letter to Catholics in Ireland, he addressed victims directly.
“You have suffered grievously, and I am truly sorry,” he wrote. “I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed, and your dignity has been violated.”
In Ireland and elsewhere, the pope removed bishops accused of abuse and other improprieties or who were found to have covered up the sexual crimes or misconduct of their own clergy.
Nonetheless, Pope Benedict still came under fire by some victims’ advocates for a lack of transparency and for having not done enough as pope and as former prefect of the doctrinal congregation.
One case in particular was the decision not to laicize a Wisconsin priest who had probably molested about 200 children, despite the recommendation of his bishop that he be removed from the priesthood.
By the time the Vatican learned in the late 1990s of the case of Father Lawrence C. Murphy, the priest was elderly and in poor health. The Vatican suggested that the priest continue to be restricted in ministry instead of laicized, and he died four months later.
At a Mass marking the end of the Year for Priests in 2011, Pope Benedict said that what had been planned as a year of celebration became a “summons to purification” in light of new scandals.
“In this very year of joy for the sacrament of the priesthood, the sins of priests came to light — particularly the abuse of the little ones, in which the priesthood, whose task is to manifest God’s concern for our good, turns into its very opposite,” the pope said during a Mass with about 15,000 priests.