As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI nears the end of his long and extraordinary life, the tussling over his legacy has already begun in earnest. In his native Germany, the “Synodal Way” appears intent on erasing fifty years of magisterial interpretation of the Second Vatican Council – a reading for which Joseph Ratzinger is as responsible as anyone save, perhaps, St. John Paul II. The Synodal Way is a sort of referendum on his life’s work and legacy.
And then there’s the report, published last month, on the history of clerical sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Munich-Freising, the result of an investigation conducted by a German law firm on behalf of the archdiocese. Joseph Ratzinger led the archdiocese from 1977 until 1982, when he was called to Rome to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Though the report covers almost seventy-five years, much attention has, predictably, focused on Ratzinger’s brief tenure as archbishop.
The authors of the report identified four cases in which then-Cardinal Ratzinger failed to take appropriate action against accused priests. Benedict has long denied responsibility for mishandling such cases during his time in Munich. After taking time to digest the Munich report – which is close to 2,000 pages long – Benedict’s advisers have responded on his behalf.
The short version of that response: “In none of the cases analyzed by the expert report was Joseph Ratzinger aware of sexual abuse committed or suspicion of sexual abuse committed by priests. The expert report provides no evidence to the contrary.”
Benedict offered a lengthy written statement to investigators when they were preparing their report. That statement included a significant error: Benedict said he was not at a meeting at which the transfer of an accused priest to Munich from another diocese was approved. Benedict corrected the error quickly and apologized for it. The error was unintentional; a mistake made by his team in transcription. Ratzinger was present at the meeting in question but was unaware that the priest was an abuser and was not involved in placing him in ministry.
Those inclined to believe him, will; those not so inclined will not.
It’s almost certainly the case that Pope Benedict has personally handled more cases of clerical sexual abuse than anyone. He laicized 400 priests in just two years as pope and swiftly dealt with many more as head of the CDF – a period when the first ripples of the abuse crisis reached Rome followed by the tidal waves that have been slamming the Church periodically since 2002.
He set an example for other clergy and future popes by apologizing publicly to victims of abuse and making a point to meet regularly with victims. When he abdicated in 2013, the Church’s response to abuse was still far from where it needed to be. It was also manifestly, immeasurably better than it was when he first came to Rome as a young cardinal in 1982.
The point isn’t that abuse victims should see him as a champion. The point isn’t that we ought to overlook his failings (remember how poorly he handled the McCarrick case?). The point is that he has pulled the Church in the right direction when it comes to clerical sexual abuse for longer and in more meaningful ways than perhaps anyone else.
The Church and those who have been wounded by the Church can acknowledge this without being satisfied. In truth, it is worth acknowledging that there is nothing the Church can say or do, no apology she can give, no justice she can mete out, that will satisfy.
But there is satisfaction, though we should tremble to think of it. And that, too, is something Benedict reminds us, even as others debate his legacy. He published a short, but remarkable letter, this week. The concluding paragraphs are a poignant reflection on fault, sorrow, and examination of conscience in the face of death:
In all my meetings, especially during my many Apostolic Journeys, with victims of sexual abuse by priests, I have seen at first hand the effects of a most grievous fault. And I have come to understand that we ourselves are drawn into this grievous fault whenever we neglect it or fail to confront it with the necessary decisiveness and responsibility, as too often happened and continues to happen. As in those meetings, once again I can only express to all the victims of sexual abuse my profound shame, my deep sorrow and my heartfelt request for forgiveness. I have had great responsibilities in the Catholic Church. All the greater is my pain for the abuses and the errors that occurred in those different places during the time of my mandate. Each individual case of sexual abuse is appalling and irreparable. The victims of sexual abuse have my deepest sympathy and I feel great sorrow for each individual case.
Quite soon, I shall find myself before the final judge of my life. Even though, as I look back on my long life, I can have great reason for fear and trembling, I am nonetheless of good cheer, for I trust firmly that the Lord is not only the just judge, but also the friend and brother who himself has already suffered for my shortcomings, and is thus also my advocate, my “Paraclete.” In light of the hour of judgement, the grace of being a Christian becomes all the more clear to me. It grants me knowledge, and indeed friendship, with the judge of my life, and thus allows me to pass confidently through the dark door of death. In this regard, I am constantly reminded of what John tells us at the beginning of the Apocalypse: he sees the Son of Man in all his grandeur and falls at his feet as though dead. Yet He, placing his right hand on him, says to him: “Do not be afraid! It is I…” (cf. Rev 1:12-17).
Pray for Benedict. And join him in praying for the victims of abuse.
*Image: Benedict XVI at Munich Airport in June of 2020. The Pope Emeritus had visited Germany to visit his ailing elder brother, Georg. (Sven Hoppe/Pool via Reuters)
You may also enjoy:
Fr. Gerald E. Murray & Michael Pakaluk: Two Commentaries on Benedict XVI’s Letter
Fr. Robert P. Imbelli’s Benedict XVI: Prophet