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What now for senior clergy who covered up abuse?

  • 27 January 2022
Many Catholics will have found the news from Germany this past week painful. A law firm, Westpfahl Spilker Wastl, has presented findings in its investigation into historic sexual abuse in the Munich archdiocese. Running to 1,000 pages, the report is shocking: it lists at least 497 victims for the period 1945–2019 and identifies 235 probable offenders including 173 priests and nine deacons.

Naturally, much interest now centres on events that took place during Joseph Ratzinger’s archepiscopal tenure between 1977 and 1982. Ratzinger’s handling of claims of abuse during his administration of the archdiocese and his role in the decision to re-employ a known abuser within it have understandably become key matters under scrutiny. The man now known as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI denied he was present at a crucial meeting on 15 January 1980, but written minutes contradicted him. The lawyers therefore did not find his testimony credible. And his successor in Munich, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who is also criticized in the report, says he is ‘shocked and ashamed’ by everything that went on.

Benedict stands accused of having misled the Church when he wrote in 2013: ‘I can only, as you know, acknowledge it with profound consternation. But I never tried to cover up these things.’ He now admits to having made a mistake in his testimony and blames the inconsistencies between it and other records on an ‘editorial error’.

To reiterate, this was only ever a ‘fact finding’ investigation by a law firm, which does not have the authority to make its findings legally binding. Nevertheless, further legal processes are likely in light of what the lawyers have concluded. And many will feel white hot anger at the forensic demonstration of yet another instance of morally compromised behaviour on the part of ecclesiastical authorities. Even a charitable reading of the actions of the parties to this case suggests that they were, at best, wilfully blind. The Holy Father emeritus finds his integrity seriously undermined: ascribing inaccuracies to his lawyers won’t wash.

Benedict, who unwisely blamed the sexual revolution of the 1960s for the abuse crisis, is also on record as warning about the evils of moral relativism. My esteemed ACU colleague David Kirchhoffer, who studies Benedict’s theology, creates subtle arguments to show that Benedict does not, in fact, intend his words to resonate in quite the absolutist terms that others sometimes hear in them. But his words currently do him no favours