VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is rightly credited with being one of the most prolific Catholic theologians of the 20th century, a teaching pope who preached the faith through volumes of books, sermons and speeches. But he rarely got credit for another important aspect of his legacy: having done more than anyone before him to turn the Vatican against clergy sex abuse.
As cardinal and pope, Benedict imposed groundbreaking changes to Church law to make it easier to cast off predatory priests, and he fired hundreds of them. He was the first pontiff to meet survivors of abuse. And he overthrew his revered predecessor on the Catholic Church’s most egregious case of the 20th century, ultimately taking action against a serial pedophile who was worshiped by St. John Paul II’s inner circle.
But there was still much to do, and after his death on Saturday, abuse survivors and their advocates made it clear they did not believe his record was anything to praise, noting that he, like the rest of the hierarchy Catholic, protected the image of the institution. on the needs of victims and, in many ways, embodied the clerical system that fueled the problem.
“In our view, Pope Benedict XVI carries with him decades of the Church’s darkest secrets,” said SNAP, the leading US clergy abuse survivor group.
Matthias Katsch of Eckiger Tisch, a group representing German survivors, said Benedict XVI will go down in history for victims of abuse as “a person who was responsible for the system they fell victim to for a long time,” according to the report. dpa news agency.
In the years following Benedict XVI’s resignation in 2013, the scourge which he said affected only a few predominantly English-speaking countries had spread to all parts of the world. Benedict has refused to accept personal or institutional responsibility for the problem, even after he himself was implicated by an independent report for handling four cases while bishop of Munich. He never disciplined a bishop who covered up abusers, and he never demanded that cases of abuse be reported to the police.
But Benoît did more than any of his predecessors put together, and especially more than Jean-Paul, under whose leadership misdeeds exploded publicly. And after initially brushing off the problem, Pope Francis followed in Benedict’s footsteps and approved even stricter protocols designed to hold the hierarchy accountable.
“He (Benedict) acted like no other pope did when pressed or coerced, but his papacy (was) responsive on this central issue,” said Terrence McKiernan, founder of online resource BishopAccountability. , which tracks global cases of clergy abuse and coverage. -up.
As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for a quarter of a century, former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger saw firsthand the scale of sexual abuse as early as the 1980s. from Ireland, Australia and the United States, and Ratzinger tried as early as 1988 to persuade the Vatican’s legal department to let it quickly remove abusive priests.
Vatican law at the time required lengthy and complicated canonical trials to punish priests, and only as a last resort if more “pastoral” initiatives to heal them failed. This approach proved disastrous, allowing bishops to move their abusers from parish to parish where they could rape and assault again.
The legal office dismissed Ratzinger in 1988, citing the need to protect the priest’s right to defense.
In 2001, Ratzinger persuaded John Paul to let him tackle the problem head-on, ordering that all abuse cases be sent to his office for review. He hired a relatively unknown canon lawyer, Charles Scicluna, to be his chief sex crimes prosecutor and together they began to act.
“We used to discuss cases on Fridays; he called it Friday Penance,” recalls Scicluna, Ratzinger’s prosecutor from 2002 to 2012 and now Archbishop of Malta.
Under Ratzinger’s leadership as cardinal and pope, the Vatican authorized expedited administrative procedures to defrock egregious abusers. Changes to Church law allowed the statute of limitations on sexual abuse to be lifted on a case-by-case basis; raised the age of consent to 18; and expanded the standards protecting minors to also cover “vulnerable adults”.
The changes had an immediate impact: Between 2004 and 2014 – Benedict XVI’s eight-year papacy plus a year on each end – the Vatican received around 3,400 cases, defrocked 848 priests and sanctioned 2,572 others with lesser sentences, according to the only Vatican statistics ever made public. .
Nearly half of the cast-offs took place during the last two years of Benedict’s pontificate.
“There was always a temptation to think of these accusations of this scourge as something that was fabricated by the enemies of the church,” said Cardinal George Pell of Australia, where the allegations hit hard and early and where Pell himself was charged with abuse and dismissal. victims.
“Pope Benedict realized very, very clearly that there was an element of this, but the problem was much, much deeper, and he tried to do something about it,” said Pell, who was eventually acquitted of an abuse conviction after serving 404 days in solitary confinement in a Melbourne dungeon.
Among the first cases on Ratzinger’s agenda after 2001 was collecting testimonies from victims of the Reverend Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Mexico-based religious order Legionaries of Christ. Despite volumes of documentation in the Vatican dating back to the 1950s showing that Maciel had raped his young seminarians, the priest was courted by John Paul’s curia because of his ability to attract vocations and donations.
“More than the harm I received from Maciel’s abuse, later, stronger was the harm and abuse of power by the Catholic Church: secrecy, ignoring my complaints,” said Juan Vaca, l one of Maciel’s first victims who, along with other former seminarians, filed a formal canonical complaint against Maciel in 1998.
Their case languished for years as powerful cardinals who sat on Ratzinger’s board, including Cardinal Angelo Sodano, John Paul’s powerful secretary of state, blocked any investigation. They claimed that the allegations against Maciel were nothing but slander.
But Ratzinger ultimately prevailed, and Vaca testified in Scicluna on April 2, 2005, the same day Jean-Paul died.
Ratzinger was elected pope two weeks later, and only then did the Vatican finally sanction Maciel to a life of penance and prayer.
Benedict then took another step and ordered a full investigation into the order which in 2010 determined that Maciel was a religious fraudster who sexually abused his seminarians and created a cult-like order to hide his crimes.
Even Francis credited Benedict XVI’s “courage” in taking on Maciel, recalling that “he had all the documentation in hand” in the early 2000s to act against Maciel but was blocked by others more powerful than him until he becomes pope.
“He was the brave man who helped so many people,” Francis said.
That said, Benedict’s courage in circumventing protocol only went so far.
When the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, publicly criticized Sodano for preventing the Vatican from investigating another high profile serial abuser – his predecessor as Archbishop of Vienna – Benedict summoned Schoenborn to Rome for a disguise in front of Sodano. The Vatican issued a remarkable rebuke to Schoenborn for daring to speak the truth.
And then an independent report commissioned by his former diocese of Munich blamed Benedict XVI’s actions in four cases while he was bishop in the 1970s; Benedict, then long retired as pope, apologized for any “serious misconduct” but denied any personal or specific wrongdoing.
On Saturday in Germany, the pro-reform group We are Church said in a statement that with its “implausible statements” on the Munich report, “he himself had seriously damaged his reputation as a theologian and leader of church and “employee of truth.”
“He was not prepared to make a personal admission of guilt,” he added. “With this he has caused significant damage to the office of bishop and pope.”
American survivors of the Road to Recovery group said Benedict XVI, as cardinal and pope, was part of the problem. “He, his predecessors and the current pope have refused to use the vast resources of the church to help victims heal, achieve some degree of closure and get their lives back,” the group said in a statement calling on to transparency.
But Benedict’s longtime spokesman, the Reverend Federico Lombardi, said Benedict’s action against sexual abuse was one of many underappreciated aspects of his legacy that deserves recognition, as it paved the way for even deeper reforms.
Lombardi recalled the prayers Ratzinger composed in 2005 for the Good Friday Via Crucis procession at Rome’s Colosseum as evidence that the future pope knew well — earlier and better than anyone in the Vatican — how serious the problem was.
“How much filth there is in the church, especially among those in the priesthood who are supposed to belong totally to him (Christ),” Ratzinger wrote in the meditations for the much-publicized Holy Week procession.
Lombardi said he did not understand at the time the experience that inspired Ratzinger’s lyrics.
“He had seen the gravity of the situation much more clearly than others,” Lombardi said.