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Headlines on German report unfair to Pope Benedict 

It isn’t easy to defend a Catholic priest or bishop from an accusation of wrongdoing when it comes to the abuse of children. The assumption in the public eye is of guilt no sooner than the words are put together in a stream of thought let alone written in a 1900-page report in German.

The proof of this has been the reaction in the English speaking press over the last five days since an investigation into sexual abuse of minors in the Munich Archdiocese released . Every news report that can be found reads almost verbatim – indicating that no one reporting on the report has actually went to the trouble of reading the primary source but relied on the contents of press releases from the authors to formulate a news story.

None of this should come as a surprise. In Ireland, this is common practice when detailed reports are released. The headline summaries are all that are read and little of the content delved into unless there is the possibility of additional grist for the mill.

The take-aways from the Munich Report focus on one aspect of it: Pope Benedict XVI, who as Archbishop, is accused of failing to act in four cases of alleged sexual abuse of minors. Three weeks ago, The Irish Times reported on the leaked report accusing Pope Benedict of clerical abuse cover-up. In the interests of fairness, this was before the report was released and it is likely that they were only working from snippets when creating the headline.

Later, the Irish Times headlined that Pope Benedict ‘admits to false clerical sex-abuse testimony’. Patsy McGarry goes on the offensive, with the headline with ‘Hypocrisy of Benedict is writ large in 2010 letter to Irish Catholics’.

The objective is clearly to present a particular interpretation of the report from Munich. The impression given is that Pope Benedict XVI has been found in a court of law of covering up sex-abuse during his time in Munich.

Nothing so clearcut is written in the report and nothing even close to approaching such an interpretation is presented – to the best of my understanding.

Unlike others, I admit I have not read the 1,900-page report and I do not speak German in order to do so. So, I rely on second-hand information and a closer examination of the details from different sources.

As things stand, it is important to remember that these accusations are from 1977 to 1982 – a period 40 to 45 years ago.

The Pope Emeritus is now 94 years of age. He seems to retain a very sharp mind and has been able to put together an 82-page response to the accusations that were put his way but at that age, having to deal with such a heavy report or process cannot be an easy task.

An error about his attendance at a particular meeting, 45 years ago, has been presented as an additional cover-up. He has apologised for that error and as of yet, has not responded to the 1,900-page report. No doubt it is not easy for a 94-year-old man to read such a lengthy report – an excuse most journalists are not able to rely on in their simplistic reporting. But he is trying.

One of the authors of the report has stated that the Pope Emeritus was defensive in his engagement with the process, and that 82 page response is restricted to ‘the juristic, testimonial and canonical aspects’ and lacks ‘awareness that this was also about a human side’ – a strange, subjective, accertion at someone who is defending themselves from very serious accusations.

Can I say with absolute certainty that he is not carrying some fault, whether through commission or omission? No, of course not. However, the assumed certainty of his guilt in being complicit in child sex-abuse cover up is loud and clear from his detractors.

The report itself was a huge undertaking. It was not investigating the Pope, it was looking into how the Catholic Church in Munich handled allegations of sex abuse from 1945 to 2019 – a period spanning 74 years. It speaks of a ‘total failure’ of a system – not unfamiliar to many other jurisdictions where the Church has failed, finding indications of abuse by 235 people, including 173 priests.

The details – as best I understand them: There are four cases where the Pope Emeritus is concerned, each quite different. One of the author’s of the report, Lawyer Martin Pusch, says ‘In a total of four cases, we concluded that then-archbishop, Cardinal Ratzinger, can be accused of misconduct’.

What type of misconduct? I rely on some background from Catholic historian, Vatican journalist and author Michael Hesemann who has looked at this in detail for the following analysis.

The first of the four cases – case 22 – involved aa priest who had been sentenced to prison in the 1960s for paedophilia. After his release, Ratzinger’s predecessor, Julius Cardinal Döpfner, had transferred him abroad. During Ratzinger’s tenure, he asked to return to his native Bavaria to retire. He was granted that in the late 1970s. The expert opinion insinuates that Benedict XVI knew the perpetrator because he had spent his vacation in his former parish and would have known of his past and thus was involved in some sort of cover-up. The Pope Emeritus denies this.

The second case – case 37 in the report – involves a priest from the diocese of Essen who had been convicted of “attempted fornication with children and (sexual) offense” in the early 1970s, before Ratzinger was Bishop. He was removed from his teaching ministry at the time. Five year later, there was a second conviction for exhibitionist acts during the Pope’s tenure in Munich. He was allowed remain in his post and this exhibitionism was not related to children. A year later the priest relapsed and received a suspended prison sentence. He was dismissed from his pastoral ministry and went to teach in a private school.

If anything, there were issues with the State system more so than the Church in this case. The Pope Emeritus has denied any wrong doing.  The third case, number 40 in the report is of a priest who was a relative of a Bishop in a foreign diocese who was given a suspended sentence in his home country for sexual abuse of children. His uncle, the Bishop of his home country, asked for him to be sent to Munich to study, which then Archbishop Ratzinger agreed to. Ratzinger denies any knowledge of the issue in the home country. In fact, when the priest was found seeking private contact with altar boys he was forbidden soon dismissed from the diocese. The report assumes, without evidence, that Ratzinger knew of the past issues.

The fourth case, numbered 42 in the report, was of a priest taking lewd photos of young girls and later convicted. The Pope knew of this and had the accused put in a home for the elderly but then the parish priest allowed him to celebrate Mass and this fault is laid at the feet of Benedict.

Case 37 is the most notorious as it refers to Fr Peter H, a repeat offender on whom 350 pages of the report focuses on, as there were many failings in the Church and the State that allowed him to continue to offend. The finger of blame pointed at the Pope Emeritus deflects from the systemic failings.

It is important to remember that attorney Martin Pusch, who presented the report said “In a total of four cases, we reached a consensus there was a failure to act.” This is not a statement of fact but an opinion on four out of hundreds of cases covering a period of 75 years.

What is not acknowledged in reporting on this subject, is that in the 75 pages devoted to the high-profile case of Cardinal Ratzinger, covering his five year term in office, it does not deal with a single case of sexual abuse carried out in his diocese at this time, that he failed to act on. Not one case of actual abuse, but perceived failings in managing four abusers who had abused elsewhere, a number of whom had received sentences in criminal courts and were then allowed to move around in society by State authorities.

He may have not lived up to the standards of this millennium at a time when certain political parties and vocal activists were celebrating paedophillia as a good thing in different parts of the world, but to say he failed to protect children is a stretch.

It may be useful to read the report, rather than the soundbytes and press-releases, but it should not be forgotten, though many want to deny it, that as Prefect to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger was the person who took the issue in hand from 2001 and made significant strides in cleaning up that aspect of the Church, more so than anyone else.

He may not have got everything right, given the breadth and depth of the problem. Between 2001 and 2010, over 3,000 cases landed across the desks of the CDF, with a noted swell in 2003 and 2004, prior to Ratzinger becoming Pope.  20 per cent of these went to full trial, though 60 percent were not tried due to the advanced age of the priests with 10% of cases resulting in the most severe censure of the priests – laicization – dismissal.

Processes were speeded up and bishops were permitted to take immediate action and avoid lengthy trials where the evidence was overwhelming, a significant change of approach often not appreciated from the outside.  However, all was not perfect, as it is little known that the CDF had only a staff of about 45 in a Church of 1.3 billion, to deal with this crisis as well as many other issues – such as dissenting theologians.

Patsy McGarry is unfair when he says ‘Hypocrisy of Benedict is writ large in 2010 letter to Irish Catholics’. If anything, there was no one better placed to send that letter at the time. Not everyone will believe that and the headlines of recent days will only add to that sense.

The contents of the report do not equate with the heavy-handed caricature created of the Pope Emeritus in the public square. At worst, Archbishop Ratzinger failed to act in the standards expected 20 years later, understanding what became known and with the benefit of hindsight. Equal or greater failings existed at State level in every country the Church failed too.

A fairer analysis may be that he simply did not know. His track record in tackling the abuse crisis as Cardinal and Pope would indicate that he had no interest in putting reputation before the protection of children.



Dualta Roughneen

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