The emeritus pope Benedict XVI died this week, one of only three pontiffs to ever resign their post as a Bishop of Rome, head of the church, sovereign of the Vatican City State. He was 95 years old.
Citing “advanced age,” he resigned the papacy at age 85; the fourth-oldest person to hold the office of pope. On 10 February 2013 he writes; “I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter… and ask pardon for all my defects.”
It was the first time in 600 years a pope had resigned, and the first to go voluntarily since Gregory XII in 1415 (whose resignation settled a 40-year split within the Catholic Church); and Celestine V in 1294 (who later died in prison). In truth, all three were marred in papal controversies that called for reconciliation between civil and canon law.
For nearly a decade, emeritus Pope Benedict XVI has been retired in fervent prayer at the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery in Vatican City. However, whilst in prayer and solitude in January 2022 he was accused of failing to intervene in child sexual abuse during his tenure as archbishop of Munich and Freising.
Benedict, then called Joseph Ratzinger, presided over the diocese from 1977 to 1982, and was accused this year of being fully aware of child-abusing priests, and perpetuating the abuse by keeping them in active pastoral care roles under his watch in southern Germany.
According to a report commissioned by the Catholic Church, and written by German law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl, the investigation uncovered at least 235 alleged perpetrators in the Archdiocese of Munich. The report examined sexual abuse, and the handling of complaints in the diocese, uncovering 497 victims from 1945 through 2019. Though Benedict cooperated with the investigation via written testimony the committee observes, “in a total of four cases, we came to the conclusion that former Cardinal Ratzinger can be accused of misconduct.”
Benedict immediately released the following statement. “In none of the cases examined by the expert opinion did Joseph Ratzinger have knowledge of acts or suspicion of acts of sexual abuse of priests. The expert opinion presents no evidence that it is otherwise.”
Ratzinger, however, was aware of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick; the laicized Archbishop of Washington (2001-2008) who was accused by The New York Times of engaging in sexual misconduct with adult male seminarians over the course of decades.
After a church investigation and trial, McCarrick was found guilty of sexual crimes against adults and minors after which the former defrocked cardinal was ordered to a life of prayer and penitence in 2018; a type of penalty used to punish clergy for crimes and misconduct.
The Vatican later published a report blaming Benedict for allowing McCarrick to ever rise in power, despite knowing of sex abuse allegations against him. Though Benedict pressured McCarrick to resign as Archbishop of Washington D.C. in 2006, McCarrick remained active in ministry throughout Benedict's papacy.
"I have had great responsibilities in the Catholic Church,” the emeritus pope recently said, “all the greater is my pain for the abuses and the errors that occurred in those different places during the time of my mandate.”
Though a conscientious objector, Benedict’s tenure as archbishop, cardinal and pope demonstrates the influence and power of the Holy Office.
Prior to 2001, the primary responsibility for investigating allegations of sexual abuse and disciplining perpetrators rested with the individual dioceses. In 2001, Ratzinger convinced John Paul II to put the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Holy Office) in charge of all sexual abuse investigations. According to John L. Allen Jr., Ratzinger in the following years "acquired a familiarity with the contours of sexual harassment that virtually no other figure in the Catholic Church can claim.”
Ratzinger, in fact, led important changes made in Church law including; the inclusion in canon law of internet offenses against children; the extension of child abuse offenses to include the sexual abuse of all under 18; waiving statutes of limitation; and a fast-track dismissal from the clerical state for offenders.
“Cardinal Ratzinger displayed great wisdom and firmness in handling those cases,” says Charles J. Scicluna, a former prosecutor handling sexual abuse cases, “and demonstrated great courage in facing the very institutions that protect them.”
Cardinal Ratzinger, for instance, actually pressured John Paul II to investigate his friend Hans Hermann Groër, an Austrian cardinal accused of sexual abuse. Groër later resigned.
And as pope, Benedict sent a Pastoral Letter to the Catholic Church in Ireland in 2010 addressing specific cases of sexual abuse by clergy of minors. The letter expressed sorrow and promised changes in the way accusations of abuse were dealt with by the church. While victims' groups claimed the letter “failed to clarify if secular law enforcement had priority over canon law confidentiality regarding internal investigation of abuse allegations,” it was and remains the first internal challenge to the Holy Office since the Western Schism.
Benedict promised to introduce measures that would "safeguard young people in the future and bring to justice priests who were responsible for abuse.” The next month the Vatican issued guidelines on how existing church law should be implemented. The guidelines assert and attest, "Civil law concerning reporting of crimes should always be followed.”
While canon law is not legally recognized in any modern nation, with the exception of the Vatican, civil and criminal law always supersedes canon law, even in primarily Catholic nations. However, sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, nuns, and other members of religious life occurs in a sound chamber of childhood; mostly boys but also girls, the majority between the ages of 11 and 14; some as young as three years old.
Benedict XVI has apologized, met with victims, spoken of his personal shame at the evil of abuse, called for perpetrators to be investigated and brought to justice, and denounced mishandling by church authorities. Founded by Pope Paul III in 1542, the sole objective of the Holy Office was to “defend the Catholic Church from heresy,” and this reluctant pope — a shy bookworm who preferred solitary walks, piano concertos and rescuing cats to Vatican pageantry — was a man for all seasons.
In June 2021, the United Nations criticized the Vatican for persistent allegations that the Catholic Church has and continues to obstruct domestic judicial proceedings in order to prevent accountability for abusers and compensation for victims.
By February 2022, Pope Benedict XVI was the first to admit that errors were made in the treating of sexual abuse cases when he was archbishop of Munich. According to the letter released by the Vatican he asked, “forgiveness for any grievous fault,” and for the last decade has lived in solitude and prayer, a self-imposed exile, a literal forsaking of the natural world. Not, however, before throwing a Child and Youth Protection and Victim Assistance helpline out to the Holy Sea.
Benedict XVI will lie in state beginning tomorrow with the motto, “Cooperators of the Truth.”