VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope emeritus Benedict XVI is rightly credited with being one of the most prolific Catholic theologians of the 20th century, a teacher-pope who preached the faith through volumes of books, sermons and speeches. But he rarely took credit for another important aspect of his legacy: having done more than anyone before him to bring down the Vatican on clerical sex abuse.
As cardinal and pope, Benedict pushed through revolutionary changes in church law to make it easier to remove predatory priests and fired hundreds of them. He was the first pontiff to meet with abuse survivors. And he overturned his revered predecessor in the Catholic Church’s most egregious case of the 20th century, finally taking action against a serial pederast adored by St. John Paul II’s inner circle.
But much more needed to be done, and after his death on Saturday, abuse survivors and their advocates made clear they did not feel his record was anything to be commended, noting that, like the rest of the Catholic hierarchy, he was protecting the institution’s image over from the needs of the victims and in many ways embodied the graphic system that fueled the problem.
“In our view, Pope Benedict XVI is taking decades of the church’s darkest secrets with him to his grave,” said SNAP, the main US-based clergy abuse survivors’ group.
Matthias Katsch of Eckiger Tisch, a group representing German survivors, said Benedict will go down in history for abuse victims as “a person who has long been responsible in the system in which they were victimized,” according to the dpa news agency.
In the years since Benedict’s resignation in 2013, the scourge he thought contained only a few predominantly English-speaking countries had spread to all parts of the globe. Benedict has refused to accept personal or institutional responsibility for the problem, even after he was accused by an independent report of his handling of four cases while bishop of Munich. He never sanctioned any bishop who covered up the abusers and never ordered abuse cases to be reported to the police.
But Benedict did more than any of his predecessors combined, and especially more than John Paul, under whose watch the offense exploded publicly. And after initially dismissing the problem, Pope Francis followed in Benedict’s footsteps and approved even tougher protocols designed to hold the hierarchy accountable.
“He (Benedict) acted like no other pope when pressured or coerced, but his papacy (was) reactionary on this central issue,” said Terence McKiernan, founder of the online resource BishopAccountability, which tracks global cleric abuse cases and coverage . -up.
As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for a quarter of a century, former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger saw firsthand the extent of sexual abuse as early as the 1980s. USA, and Ratzinger tried as early as 1988 to convince the Vatican’s legal department to let him quickly remove abusive priests.
Vatican law at the time required long and complicated canonical trials to punish priests and then only as a last resort if more “pastoral” initiatives to cure them failed. This approach proved disastrous, allowing bishops to move their abusers from parish to parish where they could rape and abuse again.
The legal office dismissed Ratzinger in 1988, citing the need to protect the priest’s right to defense.
In 2001, Ratzinger convinced John Paul to let him tackle the problem head-on, ordering all abuse cases to be sent to his office for review. He hired a relatively unknown attorney, Charles Scicluna, to be his lead sex crimes prosecutor, and together they went into action.
“We discussed the cases on Fridays. he used to call it Friday penance,” recalls Scicluna, Ratzinger’s prosecutor from 2002 to 2012 and now archbishop of Malta.
Under Ratzinger’s watch as cardinal and pope, the Vatican enacted swift administrative procedures to remove flagrant abusers. Changes in church law allowed the statute of limitations for sexual abuse to be lifted on a case-by-case basis. raised the age of consent to 18. and extended the rules for the protection of minors to also cover “vulnerable adults”.
The changes had an immediate impact: Between 2004 and 2014 — Benedict’s eight-year pontificate plus a year on either side — the Vatican accepted about 3,400 cases, deposed 848 priests and sanctioned 2,572 others to lesser terms, according to the only public records. Vatican statistics. .
Almost half of the deforestation occurred during the last two years of Benedict’s papacy.
“There has always been a temptation to think of these accusations of this scourge as something concocted by the enemies of the church,” said Cardinal George Pell of Australia, where the allegations hit early and hard and where Pell himself has been accused of abuse and dismissed . victims.
“Pope Benedict realized very, very clearly that there was an element of this, but the problem was much, much deeper, and he effectively moved in the direction of doing something about it,” said Pell, who was eventually acquitted of a conviction for abuse after being assessed 404. days in solitary confinement in a lockup in Melbourne.
Among the first cases on Ratzinger’s agenda after 2001 was the gathering of testimonies from the victims of the Rev. Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ religious order based in Mexico. Despite volumes of Vatican documentation dating back to the 1950s showing that Maciel had raped his young seminarians, the priest was courted by John Paul’s Curia because of his ability to bring in calls and donations.
“More than the wound I received from Maciel’s abuse, later, more powerful was the wound and the abuse of power by the Catholic Church: the secrecy, the ignoring of my complaints,” said Juan Vaca, one of his original victims Maciel who along with other former seminarians filed a formal canon case against Maciel in 1998.
Their case languished for years as powerful cardinals on Ratzinger’s board, including Cardinal Angelo Sodano, John Paul’s powerful secretary of state, blocked any investigation. They claimed that the accusations against Maciel were mere slander.
But Ratzinger eventually prevailed, and Vaca testified in Scicluna on April 2, 2005, the same day John Paul died.
Ratzinger was elected Pope two weeks later, and only then did the Vatican finally sanction Maciel to a life of penance and prayer.
Benedict took another step and ordered an in-depth investigation into the class that determined in 2010 that Maciel was a religious fraud who sexually abused his seminarians and created a cult-like order to cover up his crimes.
Even Francis has credited Benedict’s “courage” in going after Maciel, recalling that he “had all the documents in hand” in the early 2000s to take action against Maciel, but was blocked by others more powerful than him until became Pope.
“He was the courageous man who helped so many,” Francis said.
That said, Benedict’s prowess covering protocol only went so far.
When the archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, publicly criticized Sodano for preventing the Vatican from investigating another high-profile serial abuser—his predecessor as archbishop of Vienna—Benedict summoned Schoenborn to Rome for a dressing-down in front of Sodano. The Vatican issued a remarkable rebuke impeaching Schoenborn for daring to speak the truth.
And then an independent report commissioned by his former diocese in Munich faulted Benedict’s actions on four occasions while he was bishop in the 1970s. Benedict, since long retired as pope, has apologized for any “ serious errors’, but denied any personal or specific wrongdoing.
In Germany on Saturday, the pro-reform group We are Church said in a statement that, with his “baseless statements” about the Munich report, “he has seriously damaged his reputation as a theologian and church leader and as a ” employee of the truth.'”
“He was not prepared to personally admit his guilt,” he added. “By this he caused great damage to the office of bishop and pope.”
American survivors of the Road to Recovery group said Benedict as a cardinal and pope was part of the problem. “He, his predecessors and the current pope have refused to use the church’s vast resources to help victims heal, bring closure and rebuild their lives,” the group said in a statement calling for transparency.
But Benedict’s longtime spokesman, the Reverend Federico Lombardi, says Benedict’s action on sexual abuse was one of many underappreciated aspects of his legacy that deserve credit as it paved the way for even more far-reaching reforms.
Lombardi recalled the prayers Ratzinger composed in 2005 for the Good Friday Via Crucis procession at Rome’s Colosseum as evidence that the future pope knew well – earlier and better than anyone else in the Vatican – how bad the problem was.
“How much filth there is in the church, especially among those who, in the priesthood, are supposed to belong entirely to him (Christ),” Ratchinger wrote in meditations on the high-profile Holy Week procession.
Lombardi said he didn’t understand at the time the experience that informed Ratzinger’s words.
“He had seen the gravity of the situation much more clearly than others,” Lombardi said.