Pope Benedict XVI knew about priests who abused children but failed to act when he was archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1981, an inquest found Thursday, rejecting Benedict's long-standing denials in a damning judgment.
"He was informed about the facts," lawyer Martin Pusch said, as the Westpfahl Spilker Wastl law firm announced the findings of an investigation into historic sexual abuse at the Munich Archdiocese over several decades. The report was commissioned by the church itself.
"During his time in office there were abuse cases happening," Pusch said, referring to Benedict. "In those cases those priests continued their work without sanctions. The church did not do anything."
"We believe that he can be accused of misconduct in four cases," Pusch said. "Two of these cases concern abuses committed during his tenure and sanctioned by the state. In both cases, the perpetrators remained active in pastoral care."
Benedict continues to deny the allegations, the firm said Thursday. He has repeatedly rejected claims that he knowingly covered-up abuse, including in 2013 when he wrote: "I can only, as you know, acknowledge it with profound consternation. But I never tried to cover up these things." CNN is contacting Benedict's long-time secretary for a response to Thursday's report.
But Benedict's position was rejected by lawyers at their long-awaited press conference in Munich. Their findings represent a remarkable rebuke of the former Pope, then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, which follows years of speculation about how much he knew.
"During his time in office there were abuse cases happening," Pusch said, referring to Benedict. "In those cases those priests continued their work without sanctions. The church did not do anything. He claims that he didn't know about certain facts, although we believe that this is not so, according to what we know," Pusch said.
'A building of lies'
Benedict, now 94, became the first Pope in centuries to resign when he stepped down in 2013. His tenure was overshadowed by a global sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, and the investigators' findings -- which now directly implicate him in a failure to prevent and punish abuse -- threaten to wreck the reputation of the former pontiff.
Lawyer Ulrich Wastl presented a copy of the minutes of a meeting of Munich church leaders on January 15, 1980, when a decision was made to take on an abuser the report refers to as "Priest X."
Wastl said he was "surprised" that Benedict denied he was at the meeting, despite the minutes showing that he was. "This is something that is written down," said Wastl, later rejecting Benedict's denial as "hardly credible."
Wastl said Benedict had submitted a statement to the investigation, but gave it little credence, summarizing Benedict's position as: "You have the proof that a certain document was submitted, but you don't have the proof that I have read it."
In 2010, the Munich archdiocese said Benedict had no knowledge that a priest working in the archdiocese had committed sexual abuse.
And in 2019 the ex-Pope wrote a controversial essay on the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, claiming that it was caused in part by the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the liberalization of the church's moral teaching.
A German survivor of abuse by Catholic clergy hailed the investigators' criticism of the Pope on Thursday.
"The building of lies to protect Pope Benedict has just collapsed with a crash. Benedict was complicit in the abuse of numerous victims after 1980, victims of Priest X," said Matthias Katsch, who runs the organization "Eckiger Tisch" which seeks justice for abuse victims.
Katsch says he was 13 years old when a priest at his Jesuit school in Berlin first molested him. In 2010, Katsch went public with his story, triggering an outpouring of testimony from dozens, then hundreds of other survivors.
Katsch, who told his story to CNN in 2018, was present at the press conference announcing the investigation findings on Thursday.