Pope emeritus Benedict XVI has denied claims he was aware of an abusing priest operating on his watch in Munich and that he failed to act against him – twice.
The 94-year-old former pontiff will be named later this month in a long-awaited report into clerical sexual abuse in the Bavarian archdiocese of Munich and Freising. A key case in the investigation involves an abusing priest who was moved to the southern archdiocese in 1980 when Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict, served there as archbishop.
More than two dozen men are on record as saying they were sexually abused as teenagers by the priest, identified only as Peter H, often after he gave them alcohol and showed them pornography.
Some victims live in the priest’s home diocese of Essen and others in Bavaria, where he was reassigned in January 1980. Even after a suspended sentence for child abuse in 1986 he remained active in pastoral work.
When new details about his abuse emerged in 2010, officials in Munich and Rome moved quickly to insist the German pontiff, during his four years as archbishop of Munich, had known nothing of the abuse.
But a 43-page report into the case by a church court from 2016, commissioned by the archdiocese of Munich and leaked to Die Zeit weekly’s Christ & Welt supplement, paints a different picture.
“The then archbishop, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and his ordinariate council were, knowing the facts, ready to take on priest H,” notes the report, adding that they “consciously waived a sanctioning of criminal act” and “ignored” a 1962 obligation to report the priest to Rome.
In response to written questions, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, private secretary to the retired pope, wrote that it was “incorrect to claim [Ratzinger] had knowledge of the previous history (claims of sexual assault) at the point of the decision to accept the priest H. He had no knowledge of this previous history”.
Archbishop Gänswein declined to provide detailed answers to other questions ahead of the looming report into how the archdiocese of Munich and Freising dealt with abusing priests and their victims.
While the former pope insists he did not violate his archbishop’s obligation to register abuse claims with Rome – because he was not aware of the claims – the leaked Munich report comes to a different conclusion.
Written by Fr Lorenz Wolf, a leading German canon lawyer, it says Ratzinger breached church rules at least twice – by failing to register the abusing priest with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), and for failing to act on the case after he moved to Rome to head this key Holy See office.
The priest has admitted abusing young men and now lives in western Germany, where he is forbidden from acting as a priest and is obliged to undergo regular therapy.
After a 1986 conviction for sexually abusing 11 youths aged between 13 and 16, a note was left in his personnel file: “Use in another position not to be completely ruled out so long as there is no particular publicity.”
After several psychological assessments and therapy spells he was moved around in several parish jobs until his abuse once again became public in 2010 and Munich’s archbishop, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, began a final push to remove him from the priesthood.
In 2012 Cardinal Marx asked the CDF – formerly headed by Pope Benedict – for the priest to be “punished consequentially and put out of service”.
In response, the CDF told the cardinal it had decided “after intensive consultation, decided not to accept your suggestion”. Instead it asked the archdiocese to use administrative means, leading to the Wolf report and the priest’s removal.
Leading German canon lawyers told Christ & Welt that the leaked report exposes a “complete cover-up” of the case in Munich and Rome. By violating rules on reporting child sexual abuse to the Holy See, they say the former pope – and his successors in Munich – allowed Peter H to abuse further youths.
“The actions of the later pope,” said Prof Norbert Lüdecke, of the University of Bonn’s Catholic Theology department, “do not show an awareness of responsibility appropriate to the dignity and power of a diocesan bishop’s office. There’s no good shepherd here.”