Social AffairsBackground

How Pope Benedict ignored Vatican responsibility for child sex abuse in Ireland

Pontiff excoriated Ireland’s Catholic bishops for their handling of clerical child sexual abuse allegations but refused to blame Vatican

It was April 19th, 2005, and the Cardinal Archbishop of Dublin Desmond Connell was both euphoric and exhausted. The conclave, which concluded some time earlier, had elected Benedict XVI as Pope and, at the Irish College in Rome, Cardinal Connell told media it was “the most memorable experience of my life”.

He and the man formerly known as Cardinal Ratzinger had served on many Vatican congregations together, including the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Both shared a similar theological and philosophical outlook and both had a passion for Mozart.

Cardinal Connell was barely able to hide his delight but, scrupulously, he did not betray his oath to keep proceedings at that conclave secret even if, in his exhaustion, he was unable to hide his euphoria.

“I’ve worked with him for 12 years and have always been impressed by his serenity,” the Cardinal said. “At meetings he always lets everyone say what they wish to say. Of course, he will be a strong defender of the Catholic Church. That won’t please everyone.”


It must be acknowledged that Pope Benedict XVI was the first holder of that office to take the clerical child sexual abuse scandal seriously. That said, few in Ireland could feel wholeheartedly grateful about that.

In 2001, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he circulated every Catholic bishop in the world with two letters, both in Latin, one instructing that both be kept secret, asking that they forward to him all credible allegations they had on file about clerical child sexual abuse involving their priests. He received thousands of responses, including from Ireland.

When he was pope and the commission of investigation was under way into how Dublin’s Catholic archdiocese, and later the Cloyne diocese, dealt with clerical child sex abuse allegations, it asked the Vatican for access to the files sent from Dublin and Cloyne. It was ignored, repeatedly. The commission published its Dublin report in November 2009 and its Cloyne report in July 2011.

The findings of the Dublin report and that of the Ryan Commission had been published six months earlier in May 2009. The reports investigated the abuse of children in orphanages, industrial schools, and reformatories run by 18 Catholic religious congregations. They prompted Pope Benedict to write a pastoral letter to the Catholics of Ireland in March 2010.

He, appropriately, excoriated Ireland’s Catholic bishops for their handling of clerical child sexual-abuse allegations. He told them: “It cannot be denied that some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse. Serious mistakes were made in responding to allegations.”

He continued: “It must be admitted that grave errors of judgment were made and failures of leadership occurred. All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness.”

The handling of clerical child sexual abuse allegations by the Irish church authorities had “obscured the light of the Gospel” in Ireland “to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing”. In other words, it had consequences that were worse than the Penal Laws.

However, he ignored completely Vatican responsibility for any of this. At a meeting with the Irish bishops in 1997 Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy until 2006, insisted it was Vatican policy to defend the rights of an accused priest above all and no allegations of clerical child sex abuse should be reported to the Garda or civil authorities in Ireland. That remained Vatican policy well into the current pontificate of Pope Francis.

This was the background to then taoiseach Enda Kenny’s forceful attack on the Vatican for its lack of co-operation with Irish statutory investigations into clerical child sexual-abuse allegations and followed publication of the Cloyne report in July 2011. It also played a significant role in the Government decision of November 2011 to close the Irish Embassy to the Holy See.

And then in January of 2020, German investigators found it “overwhelmingly likely” that Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI was aware of at least four child-abusing priests among his clergy while he was archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982.

On top of this, his former deputy in the archdiocese, vicar general Gerhard Gruber, told investigators that, when the case of one abusing priest became public in 2010, he [Gruber] was “pressured” to take sole responsibility for the failure to act, in order “to protect the pope [Benedict]”.

The investigators, lawyers commissioned by the Catholic archdiocese of Munich and Freising to examine its files from 1945 to 2019, dismissed the former pope’s claims not to be aware of the four cases as “not credible”. The Church in Munich and Freising ignored victims of clerical sexual abuse and saw those it did notice “as a danger for the institution”, their report found.