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German law firm incriminates retired Pope Benedict XVI in handling of abuse cases

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Pope Benedict XVI delivers a blessing at the conclusion of a Mass for the Knights of Malta in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 9, 2013, two days before he announced his resignation. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

MUNICH — A law firm’s report on how abuse cases were handled in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising incriminated retired Pope Benedict XVI, with lawyers accusing him of misconduct in four cases during his tenure as Munich archbishop.

Lawyer Martin Pusch of the law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl said the retired pope had denied wrongdoing in all cases, reported the German Catholic news agency KNA.

Pusch said two cases concerned priests who were criminally prosecuted for abuse under then-Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger but were allowed to continue working as priests. No action was taken against them under church law, and there had been “nothing discernible” done in terms of caring for the welfare of the victims.

KNA reported the lawyers said the retired pope’s statements offered “an authentic insight” into the personal attitude of a prominent church representative toward abuse.

Pusch expressed doubt about Pope Benedict’s claim of ignorance in some cases, saying this was, at times, “hardly reconcilable” with the files.

At the Vatican, Matteo Bruni, director of the Vatican press office, said, “The Holy See believes it has an obligation to give serious attention to the document” on cases of abuse in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, but it has not yet had a chance to study it.

“In the coming days, following its publication, the Holy See will review it and will be able to properly examine its details. Reiterating its sense of shame and remorse for the abuse of minors committed by clerics, the Holy See assures its closeness to all victims and confirms the path taken to protect the youngest, ensuring safe environments for them,” Bruni said.

Retired Pope Benedict headed the Munich Archdiocese from 1977 to 1982, before being called to the Vatican to head the doctrinal congregation.

From 2001, when St. John Paul II charged the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — headed by then-Cardinal Joseph 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.

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.

The Munich investigation followed two years of research and covers the period from 1945 to 2019, centering on who knew what about sexual abuse and when, and what action they took, if any, KNA reported. The report identified 497 victims and 235 abusers, but the lawyers who conducted the study say they’re convinced the real numbers are much higher.

In early summer 2021, Cardinal Reinhard Marx — the current archbishop of Munich — tried to resign from office to take responsibility for abuses — explicitly also for possible mistakes of his predecessors. Pope Francis rejected his request.

Cardinal Marx did not attend the news conference on the report, but planned to issue a separate statement later in the day. The Archdiocese of Munich and Freising said it would respond to the 1,199-page report Jan. 27.

The day before the report was released, German bishops’ Advisory Board for Victims of Abuse issued a statement noting that a series of reports on abuse in the German church showed that protection of perpetrators took precedence over protection of victims.

“If different investigations, whether forensic or with a systemic approach, always come to the same results, then there is no need for further analysis. Then it is finally time to take responsibility, then it is finally time for decisions and courageous action,” the statement said.

It noted that future abuse must be prevented, but the suffering of thousands of victims must be acknowledged in a way that changes attitudes.

“Seeing and judging is over, it is time to act — finally to act,” the statement said. It added that all people, lay as well as priests and bishops, are responsible for factors favoring abuse.

Contributing to this report was Anli Serfontein in Berlin.