Truth Prevails

By all appearances, Joseph Ratzinger loved being pope.  Or at least dressing up as one.  The bright red loafers, his revival of the camauro, an ermine-trimmed red velvet hat favored by 17th century popes and last worn by Pope John XXIII in the 1960’s, as well as donning a velvet cape trimmed with ermine earned him the nickname “Pope Prada.”  One thing you can say about Pope Benedict XVI is that he certainly looked the part.  In 2007, Esquire magazine went so far as to crown him “Accessorizer of the Year.”

Pope Benedict XVI

His resignation in 2013 shocked the world, and not just the Catholic world.  Popes don’t retire, they die in office.  Or at least they had for 598 years; Benedict XVI became the first pope to relinquish the office since Gregory XII was forced to resign in 1415 to end the Western Schism, and the first pope to voluntarily resign since Celestine V in 1294, paving the way for Pope Francis with his much more understated fashion sense and progressive view of the Church.  It never made sense to me that a man synonymous with Catholic tradition, and a decidedly conservative understanding of that tradition, would break with centuries of tradition and throw in the ermine-lined towel.  If I may proffer my own suggestion as to why he did, I think the weight of what had come to light regarding the Church’s role in the sexual abuse crisis, combined with what he knew would eventually be exposed and his own culpability, was too much to bear.

His tenure was overshadowed by ever-burgeoning global revelations of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, and given that prior to his papacy he had headed the Vatican dicastery responsible for addressing clerical misconduct — the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — for 24 years, it seemed almost karmic that he’d be in the top job when the chickens came home to roost.  But a report out today sheds a new and unflattering light on his time before becoming the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog and rule-enforcer when he served as archbishop of Munich in Germany from 1977 to 1982.

The archdiocese commissioned the report from German law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl nearly two years ago, instructing it to look into abuse between 1945 and 2019 and whether Church officials there handled allegations of sexual misconduct by priests correctly.  The report states:

In a total of four cases, we came to the conclusion that the then-archbishop, Cardinal Ratzinger [Pope Benedict XVI], can be accused of misconduct.

Two of those cases involved priest-perpetrators who offended while Ratzinger was archbishop of the archdiocese and therefore their superior/supervisor; the priests were punished by the judicial system but kept in pastoral work without any limits on what they were allowed to do (such as interact with children), and no action was ordered under canon law.  In the third case, a priest who had been convicted by a court outside Germany was put into service in the Munich archdiocese and the report found that Ratzinger knew of the priest's previous history.  The fourth case is similar.  A suspected pedophile priest was transferred to Munich to undergo therapy, a move approved by Ratzinger in 1980; the priest was allowed to resume pastoral work, and six years later, in 1986, the priest received a suspended sentence for molesting a boy.

In an extraordinary move last year, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the current archbishop of Munich, offered to resign over, as he put it, “the catastrophe of the sexual abuse by Church officials over the past decades,” but Pope Francis did not accept his resignation while saying at the same time a process of reform was necessary and that every bishop must take responsibility for the "catastrophe" of the abuse crisis — a bit of a mixed message from the current pontiff who is calling on bishops to take responsibility for decades of institutional failure but rejecting one bishop’s attempt at accountability.

Perhaps the most stunning, and damning, rebuke, to date, of the Catholic Church’s handling of the sexual abuse crisis came during Benedict’s papacy out of Ireland in 2009.  The Murphy Report, as it is known, found that:

[T]he Dublin Archdiocese's preoccupations in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse, at least until the mid-1990s, were the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church, and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities. The Archdiocese did not implement its own canon law rules and did its best to avoid any application of the law of the State.

In the Republic of Ireland, a “commission of investigation” is a statutory commission established under the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004 to investigate a matter of "urgent public concern.”  The Murphy Report noted the commission was told the archdiocese was "on a learning curve" regarding child abuse allegations, but found it had taken out insurance annually from 1987 against the risk of legal costs and damages arising from child sex abuse litigation:

At the time the Archdiocese took out insurance in 1987, Archbishop Kevin McNamara, Archbishop Dermot Ryan and Archbishop John Charles McQuaid had had, between them, available information on complaints against at least 17 priests operating under the aegis of the Dublin Archdiocese. The taking out of insurance was an act proving knowledge of child sexual abuse as a potential major cost to the Archdiocese and is inconsistent with the view that Archdiocesan officials were still "on a learning curve‟ at a much later date, or were lacking in an appreciation of the phenomenon of clerical child sex abuse.

It should be clear that given the time frame in question — 1987 onward — Joseph Ratzinger, as Pope Benedict XVI was then known, was the man in charge of handling clerical sexual abuse at the Vatican.  It is highly unlikely, if nigh on impossible, he was unaware of steps being taken in Dublin and around the world to cover-up accusations of clergy misconduct through secret financial settlements with victims to buy their silence and protect the Church’s reputation.  He was not, as some suggest, just the unlucky sod who happened to hold the top job when news of the extent of the wrongdoing and subsequent coverup became public.

Cologne cathedral

A carnival float depicting a sleeping Cardinal is set in front of the Roman Catholic cathedral in Cologne, Germany;
the German reads, "11 years of relentless processing of cases of abuse."

Today’s revelations of “four” mishandled cases by Cardinal Ratzinger when he was in Munich may seem regrettable but inconsequential, until you put them in context.  A 2018 Church-commissioned report concluded that at least 3,677 people, more than half of them 13 years-old or younger, were abused by priests in Germany between 1946 and 2014.  That is 681 more lives than were lost in the terrorist attacks of 9/11!  We are rightly horrified by the loss of life on 9/11.  We should be no less angry at a Church which has conducted a decades long effort to duck responsibility for the global scourge of the sexual abuse of children.

Last November, those of us who have come forward as victim-survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests lost our most visible and outspoken champion when Phil Saviano passed away.  The world learned his name when Neal Huff played him in the 2016 academy award for best picture film Spotlight, which tells the true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the massive scale of child molestation and coverup within the local Catholic archdiocese, shaking the entire Catholic Church, and indeed the world, to its foundations.  I was fortunate enough to know Phil personally and spend time with him on several occasions.  I am reminded of something he often said to me quoting Jan Hus, a Czech theologian and philosopher who became a Church reformer and the inspiration of Hussitism, a key predecessor to Protestantism:  “truth prevails.”

Phil Saviano

In Memoriam
Philip James Saviano
June 23, 1952 — November 28, 2021

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