In Germany’s emotional debate over Joseph Ratzinger, the self-styled Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, there is only one point on which the warring sides agree.
What began as an investigation into post-war clerical sexual abuse and its cover-up in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, which Benedict headed for four years until 1982, has turned into a no-holds-barred battle royal for his reputation, and that of the institution with which he has been inextricably linked for more than six decades.
The 94-year-old’s friends and allies see a “vile” plot under way to destroy the legacy of a gentle intellectual and genial theologian. His critics and opponents point to a different Benedict who, they say, has been tripped up by institutional blindness and the same uncompromising approach he took with others.
In recent weeks, both sides have had their say about his Munich years. Lawyers commissioned by the archdiocese produced nearly 2,000 pages documenting nearly 500 cases of clerical sexual abuse they found in church archives – with more likely – and linked five to the 1977-1982 Ratzinger era, when Benedit was archbishop.
They dismissed one but said, in the other four, there were clear indications that Benedict was at least aware of problematic priests but did not intervene.
The former pope disputed these claims in his 82-page written response, using arguments familiar to Irish ears: no knowledge, no responsibility, different times.
Last week his lawyers went further: investigators had produced no smoking gun, they said, and relied instead on gossip and circumstantial evidence.
Much attention has focused on one case from 1980, and Benedict’s denial – three times – that he attended a meeting that discussed accepting a paedophile priest into the diocese.
In his original, first-person testimony the 94 year old insisted his memory was still clear and that he had near-perfect recall of events, people and documents decades earlier.
After investigators disproved his denial that he attended a crucial meeting, Benedict last week passed the responsibility for claiming otherwise onto “a small group of friends who selflessly compiled [testimony] on my behalf”.
The order of Benedict’s letter last week is as revealing as its contents. It begins with thanks to his friends and supporters, moves on to his personal dismay at being called a liar over the 1980 meeting and then addresses the issue of clerical sexual abuse.
He writes of his “deep pain, my earnest wish for forgiveness from all victims of sexual abuse” and, recalling Jesus’s disciples – asleep in the Garden of Olives – is “a situation that, today too, continues to take place, and for which I too feel called to answer”.
With both sides dug into their trenches, lobbing mortars at the other side, the matter is at an impasse in Germany
His private secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, has said that “anyone who reads the letter sincerely” can see the honest apology at its head.
His implication – that anyone who reaches a different conclusion to the letter is insincere – has not gone down well with Benedict’s vocal German critics.
They say the ex-pope’s request for forgiveness is incomplete because at no point does he actually mention doing anything wrong or failing to live up to the considerable responsibility he admits holding in the church. Instead, he addresses failings and forgiveness in the conditional tense.
Benedict wonders rhetorically “if today, too, I should speak of a most grievous fault”. Giving no answer, he expresses consolation instead that “however great my fault may be today, the Lord forgives me, if I sincerely allow myself to be examined by him, and am really prepared to change”. This is an “if, may, if” papal apology.
Half a century after the second Vatican Council, its unresolved tensions between traditionalists and reformists are visible in the heated response worldwide to the Munich report and its Benedict claims, reflecting a widening split in the global Catholic Church.
For conservatives, Benedict must be defended to the end: their last standing traitionalist galleon figure whose lifelong war against the “dictatorship of relativism” and anything goes modernity is crucial for the future of the Catholic Church.
For liberals and non-believing critics, the report and his letter are staggering examples of clerical blindness, looking elsewhere to attribute the blame for home-made church problems.
With both sides dug into their trenches, lobbing mortars at the other side, the matter is at an impasse in Germany. Both defence and prosecution have had their say on Benedict’s Munich record, but who is the judge? Two weeks ago Munich’s Cardinal Reinhard Marx said he saw no reason to doubt the investigators or their report, but would wait to comment on their claims against Benedict until the retired pope had responded.
Now that he has, Cardinal Marx insists he already commented “in detail” a week earlier. Most other bishops have commented on the letter with no comment.
Their most charitable reading of his letter is that Benedict tried to improve how Germany’s Catholic Church grapples with clerical sexual abuse, but is unable to see the institution’s self-made problems, and has made things worse. As they call it here: verschlimmbessern.
Their demands for reform in the German church, in particular to tackle clericalism, have failed their first practical test: they cannot bring themselves to share in public their private criticisms of the German ex-pope.
They have stayed as true to their clerical selves as the author of last week’s letter from Rome. With an air of sad farewell, Joseph Ratzinger, the one-time theology professor, stayed in character to the end.
Derek Scally is Berlin Correspondent