Retired Pope Benedict XVI asked forgiveness Tuesday for any “grievous faults” in his handling of clergy sex abuse cases, but denied any personal or specific wrongdoing after an independent report criticized his actions in four cases while he was archbishop of Munich, Germany.
“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,” the retired pope said.
Two cases involved priests who offended while Ratzinger was archbishop and were punished by the German legal system but were kept in pastoral ministry without any limits on their ministry.
But Benedict’s lack of a personal apology or any admission of guilt was likely to rile survivors and further complicate efforts by German bishops to re-establish credibility with the faithful. Demands for accountability have only increased as the church has come to terms with decades of sexual abuse by priests and cover-up by their bishops.
Benedict, 94, was responding to a Jan. 20 report from a German law firm that had been commissioned by the German Catholic Church to look into how cases of sexual abuse were handled in the Munich archdiocese between 1945 and 2019. Benedict, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, headed the archdiocese from 1977 to 1982.
The report faulted Benedict’s handling of four cases during his time as archbishop, accusing him of misconduct for having failed to restrict the ministry of the priests in the cases even after they had been convicted criminally. The report also faulted his predecessors and successors, estimating there had been at least 497 abuse victims over the decades and at least 235 suspected perpetrators.
The Vatican on Tuesday released a letter that Benedict wrote to respond to the allegations, alongside a more technical reply from his lawyers who had provided an initial 82-page response to the law firm about his nearly five-year tenure in Munich.
The conclusion of Benedict’s lawyers was resolute: “As an archbishop, Cardinal Ratzinger was not involved in any cover-up of acts of abuse,” they wrote. They criticized the report’s authors for misinterpreting their submission and asserted that they provided no evidence that Benedict was aware of the criminal history of any of the four priests in question.
Benedict’s response was far more nuanced and spiritual, though he went on at length to thank his legal team before even addressing the allegations or the victims of abuse.
In the letter, Benedict issued what he called a “confession,” recalling that daily Mass begins with believers confessing their sins and asking forgiveness for their faults and even their “grievous faults.” Benedict noted that in his meetings with abuse victims while he was pope, “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,” he wrote. “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.”
The law firm report identified four cases in which Ratzinger was accused of misconduct in failing to act against abusers.
Two cases involved priests who offended while Ratzinger was archbishop and were punished by the German legal system but were kept in pastoral ministry without any limits on their ministry. A third case involved a cleric who was convicted by a court outside Germany but was put into service in Munich. The fourth case involved a convicted pedophile priest who was allowed to transfer to Munich in 1980 and was later put into ministry. In 1986, that priest received a suspended sentence for molesting a boy.
Benedict’s team had earlier clarified an initial “error” in their submission to the law firm that had insisted Ratzinger was not present at the 1980 meeting in which the priest’s transfer to Munich was discussed. Ratzinger was there, but his return to ministry was not discussed, they said.
Benedict said he was deeply hurt that the “oversight” about his presence at the meeting had been used to “cast doubt on my truthfulness, and even to label me a liar.” But he said he had been heartened by the letters and gestures of support he had received, including from his successor.
“I am particularly grateful for the confidence, support and prayer that Pope Francis personally expressed to me,” he said.
The Vatican had already strongly defended Benedict’s record in the aftermath of the law firm report, recalling that Benedict was the first pope to meet with victims of abuse, that he had issued strong norms to punish priests who raped children and had directed the church to pursue a path of humility in seeking forgiveness for the crimes of its clerics.
The Vatican’s defense, however, focused primarily on Benedict’s tenure as head of the Holy See’s doctrine office, from 1982 until he was elected pope in 2005.
Benedict reflected on his legacy at the end of his letter, noting that he is at the end of his life and will soon be judged by God.
“Quite soon, I shall find myself before the final judge of my life,” he wrote. “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.”
The head of the German bishop's conference, Limburg Bishop Georg Baetzing, had previously said that Benedict needed to respond to the report by distancing himself from his lawyers and advisers.
“He must talk, and he must override his advisers and essentially say the simple sentence: ’I incurred guilt, I made mistakes and I apologize to those affected,” Baetzing said. ”It won’t work any other way.”
Baetzing didn’t immediately comment Tuesday on Benedict’s response.