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ROME: Retired Pope Benedict XVI asked forgiveness on Tuesday for any “serious misconduct” in his handling of clergy sex abuse cases, but denied any personal or specific wrongdoing after an independent report criticized his actions in four cases while he was Archbishop of Munich, Germany.
Benedict XVI’s lack of a personal apology or admission of guilt immediately angered victims of sexual abuse, who said his response reflected the Catholic hierarchy’s “permanent” refusal to accept responsibility for the rape and the sodomy of children by priests.
Benedict, 94, was responding to a January 20 report from a German law firm that had been commissioned by the German Catholic Church to examine how sexual abuse cases were handled in the Archdiocese of Munich between 1945 and 2019. Benedict, former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, led the archdiocese from 1977 to 1982.
The report blamed Benedict’s handling of four cases during his tenure as archbishop, accusing him of misconduct for failing to restrict the ministry of the four priests even after they were criminally sentenced. The report also blamed his predecessors and successors, finding that there had been at least 497 victims of abuse over the decades and at least 235 alleged perpetrators.
The Vatican on Tuesday released a letter that Benedict XVI wrote responding to the allegations, along with a more technical response from his lawyers who had provided an 82-page initial response to the law firm about his nearly five-year term. years in Munich.
The conclusion of Benedict XVI’s lawyers was resolute: “As Archbishop, Cardinal Ratzinger was not involved in any cover-up of acts of abuse,” they wrote. They criticized the report’s authors for misinterpreting their submission and claimed they had provided no evidence that Benedict knew of the criminal history of any of the four priests.
Benedict’s response was more nuanced and witty, though he thanked his legal team at length before even addressing the allegations or victims of abuse.
“I had great responsibilities in the Catholic Church,” Benedict XVI said. “All the greater is my pain for the abuses and mistakes that have occurred in these various places during my tenure.”
Benedict posted what he called a “confession,” although he admitted no specific wrongdoing. He recalled that daily Mass begins with believers confessing their sins and asking forgiveness even for “serious faults”. Benedict noted that in his encounters with victims of abuse while pope, “I saw firsthand the effects of the most serious misconduct.
“And I have come to understand that we ourselves are drawn into this grave fault each time we neglect it or fail to confront it with the necessary decision and responsibility, as has happened too often happened and continues to happen,” he wrote. “As in these meetings, once again, I can only express to all victims of sexual abuse my deep shame, my deep sorrow and my sincere request for forgiveness.”
His response was swiftly criticized by Eckiger Tisch, a group representing survivors of German clergy abuse, who said it was part of the church’s “ongoing relativization of issues of abuse – wrongdoing and errors have occurred, but no one takes concrete responsibility”.
Benedict “cannot bring himself to simply state that he is sorry for not having done more to protect the children entrusted to his church,” the group said.
The pope’s response to the retreat will likely complicate efforts by German bishops to try to restore credibility with the faithful, whose demands for accountability have only grown after decades of abuse and cover-up.
The head of the German bishops’ conference, Limburg bishop Georg Baetzing, previously said that Benedict XVI should respond to the report by distancing himself from his lawyers and advisers. “He needs to talk, and he needs to override his advisers and basically say the simple phrase, ‘I incurred guilt, I made mistakes, and I apologize to those involved,'” Baetzing said.
But in a tweet Tuesday, Baetzing only noted that Benedict responded.
“I am grateful to him and he deserves respect for it,” Baetzing wrote. The tweet did not address the substance of Benedict XVI’s response.
The law firm’s report identified four instances in which Ratzinger was charged with misconduct by failing to act against the attackers.
Two cases involved priests who offended while Ratzinger was archbishop and were punished by the German legal system but were kept in pastoral work without any limits to their ministry. A third case involved a cleric convicted by a court outside Germany but commissioned in Munich. The fourth case involved a convicted pedophile priest who was allowed to be transferred to Munich in 1980 and was later appointed to the ministry. In 1986, this priest received a suspended sentence for assaulting a boy.
Benedict XVI’s team previously clarified an initial ‘error’ in their submission to the law firm which insisted Ratzinger was not present at the 1980 meeting in which the priest’s transfer to Munich had been discussed. Ratzinger was there, but the priest’s return to ministry was not discussed, they said.
Benedict said he was deeply hurt that the “forgetting” of his presence at the 1980 meeting was used to “cast doubt on my veracity, and even to call me a liar”. But he said he was encouraged by the support he received.
“I am particularly grateful for the trust, support and prayer that Pope Francis has personally expressed to me,” he said.
The Vatican had already strongly defended Benedict’s record after the law firm’s report, recalling that Benedict was the first pope to meet victims of abuse, that he issued strict norms to punish priests who violated children and had commanded the church to pursue a path of humility in seeking forgiveness for the crimes of its clerics.
The Vatican’s defense, however, focused primarily on Benedict’s tenure as head of the Holy See’s office of doctrine and his eight-year pontificate.
Benedict reflected on his legacy in his letter.
“Soon I will find myself before the final judge of my life,” he wrote. “Even though, looking back on my long life, I may have good reason to be afraid and to tremble, I am nevertheless in good spirits. For I have the firm confidence that the Lord is not only the just judge , but also the friend and the brother who himself has already suffered for my failings.
Benedict XVI’s response also rang hollow outside of Germany, with US-based survivors’ advocacy group SNAP accusing him of “repeating words of apology that fell on people’s ears.” deaf for decades”.
And Mitchell Garabedian, the Boston attorney of “Spotlight” fame who has represented hundreds of abuse victims, said Benedict’s words revictimized and insulted survivors.
“He is a leader who sets a bad moral example and in doing so he further encourages the cover-up of clergy sexual abuse,” he said.
But Pope Francis’ top abuse prevention adviser, Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, found Benedict XVI’s letter a sincere “contrition for what has been lacking in his stewardship.”
“Benedict’s acknowledgment of the irreparable harm caused by sexual abuse in the church and his own failures to do everything to prevent such harm is a challenge to all who hold leadership positions in the church,” said O’Malley. “We have to do better.”