When Pope Benedict XVI resigned, he leaves behind a Church grappling with a global fallout from sex abuse and a personal legacy marred by allegations that he was instrumental in covering up that abuse.
As the sex abuse scandal spread from North America to Europe, Benedict became the first pope to meet personally with victims, and offered repeated public apologies for the Vatican’s decades of inaction against priests who abused their congregants.
“No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse,” the pope said in a 2008 homily in Washington, D.C., before meeting with victims of abuse for the first time. “It is important that those who have suffered be given loving pastoral attention.” During the same trip to the U.S., he met with victims for the first time.
For some of the victims, however, Benedict’s actions were “lip service and a public relations campaign,” said Jeff Anderson, a Minnesota lawyer who represents victims of sex abuse. For 25 years, Benedict, then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, headed the Vatican office responsible for investigating claims of sex abuse, but he did not act until he received an explicit order from Pope John Paul II.
In 1980, as Archbishop of Munich, Ratzinger approved plans for a priest to move to a different German parish and return to pastoral work only days after the priest began therapy for pedophilia. The priest was later convicted of sexually abusing boys.
In 1981, Cardinal Ratzinger became head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the office once known as the Inquisition — making him responsible for upholding church doctrine, and for investigating claims of sexual abuse against clergy. Thousands of letters detailing allegations of abuse were forwarded to Ratzinger’s office.
A lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of the Survivors’ Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a victims’ rights group, charges that as head of the church body Ratzinger participated in a cover-up of abuse. In an 84-page complaint, the suit alleges that investigators of sex abuse cases in several countries found “intentional cover-ups and affirmative steps taken that serve to perpetuate the violence and exacerbate the harm.”
“Ratzinger, then Pope Benedict XVI, either knew and/or some cases consciously disregarded information that showed subordinates were committing or about to commit such crimes,” the complaint says.
Jeffrey Lena, the Vatican’s lawyer in the U.S., told the AP the complaint was a “ludicrous publicity stunt and a misuse of international judicial processes.”
In the 1990s, former members of the Legion of Christ sent a letter to Ratzinger alleging that the founder and head of the Catholic order, Father Marcial Maciel, had molested them while they were teen seminarians. Maciel was allowed to continue as head of the order.
In 1996, Ratzinger didn’t respond to letters from Milwaukee’s archbishop about a priest accused of abusing students at a Wisconsin school for the deaf. An assistant to Ratzinger began a secret trial of the priest, Father Lawrence Murphy, but halted the process after Murphy wrote a personal appeal to Ratzinger complaining of ill health.
In 2001, Pope John Paul II issued a letter urging the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to pursue allegations of child abuse in response to calls from bishops around the world.
Ratzinger wrote a letter asserting the church’s authority to investigate claims of abuse and emphasizing that church investigators had the right to keep evidence confidential for up to 10 years after the alleged victims reached adulthood.
Ratzinger became upset — and slapped Ross’s hand — when ABC News Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross asked him a question in 2002 about the delay in pursuing sex abuse charges against Maciel.
But by 2004, Ratzinger had ordered an investigation of Maciel, and after becoming pope, he ordered Maciel to do penance and removed him from the active priesthood. After becoming pope Benedict spoke openly about the crisis, but he was repeatedly accused of having participated in a coverup.
In April 2010, Benedict and other officials were accused by members of BishopAccountability.org of covering up alleged child abuse by 19 bishops.
At the time, the Pope told reporters he was “deeply ashamed” of the allegations of sex abuse by his subordinates and reportedly said, “We will absolutely exclude pedophiles from the sacred ministry.”
Several other accusations followed from alleged victims around the world, prompting Benedict to make a public statement later that month from St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican. In his speech, he said the Catholic Church would take action against alleged sexual abusers. The Pope described a tearful meeting in Malta with eight men who claimed to have been abused by clergy there.
“I shared with them their suffering, and with emotion, I prayed with them,” said Benedict, “assuring them of church action.”
In 2010, he personally apologized to Irish victims of abuse.
“You have suffered grievously, and I am truly sorry,” the pope wrote in an eight-page letter to Irish Catholics. “Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated.”
But for those who advocate on behalf of the victims, the pope’s words did not go far enough.
“Tragically, he gets credit for talking about the crisis,” said David Clohessy, executive director of SNAP. “He only ever addressed the crimes and never the cover-ups. And only in the past tense, which is self-serving. Sex crimes and cover-ups are still happening.”
Clohessy called the meetings the pope had with victims “symbolic gestures.”
“This controversy that has reached even the highest office of the Vatican won’t go away until the pope himself tells us what he knew, when he knew it, and what he’s going to do about it,” said the Rev. Richard McBrien, a Catholic priest and professor of theology at Notre Dame University.
Lena, the Vatican’s U.S. lawyer, declined to comment on charges that Benedict had participated in a cover up, but said the fact that two major cases against the Church in U.S. courts, including the Murphy case, had “been dismissed by the plaintiffs themselves, speaks volumes for the strength and integrity of those cases.”