In a lengthy article published after his retirement in 2013 , Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Joseph Ratzinger, responded to a critic: "As far as you mentioning the moral abuse of minors by priests, I can only, as you know, acknowledge it with profound consternation. But I never tried to cover up these things."
Claims that he did cover up abuse, notably as Archbishop of Munich and Freising between 1977 and 1982, have dogged Benedict for years, and been repeatedly denied. But the publication last Thursday of a 1,000-page report of a Church-commissioned inquiry finds Benedict and two senior German clerics protected abusing priests. It is the first formal accusation that he failed to discipline four abusive priests and allowed them to continue their ministry without expressed restriction. It identified 497 victims of abuse in the archdiocese.
The report comes just weeks after a church court report was leaked finding that he “consciously waived a sanctioning of criminal acts” and “ignored” a 1962 obligation to report a particularly notorious abusing priest to Rome.
Benedict told the latest inquiry that he did not know of the facts of the cases cited and could not recall having attended meetings in which the priest’s case was discussed. Minutes of one meeting at which he was discussed show Ratzinger was there.
The evidence that the institutional culture of church cover-up, so vividly recorded in Ireland’s own inquiries into clerical abuse, goes right to the top is shocking but perhaps not surprising. The attitude of many church leaders that “scandal” brought about by revelations of abuse is a more pressing concern, than the abuse itself, reflects a very traditional, unacceptable placing of the church above society and its common rules.
There is evidence that such attitudes are changing under Pope Francis. But a test will be how 94-year-old Benedict is held to account. At the very least his emeritus status could be suspended, and his expected canonisation can hardly still be on the agenda.