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Benedict's 'error': What have we learned?

Benedict XVI, the pope emeritus, has issued a statement apologizing for an error in his submissions to an independent inquiry into clerical sexual abuse in his former archdiocese of Munich and Freising.

The admission from the pope emeritus that he was at a meeting where the arrival of an accused child abuser in the archdiocese was discussed has generated headlines worldwide. But does it change what we know about Archbishop Ratzinger’s time in office, or is it further illustration of a generational leadership debacle in the Church’s handling of abuse?

Benedict XVI. Credit: Abaca Press/Alamy Stock Photo

Last week, the lawfirm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl published a nearly 2,000-page report following its independent investigation into the sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable persons in the Munich archdiocese, dating back to 1945.

The report highlighted four cases in which the then-Archbishop Ratzinger could be “accused of misconduct” in his handling of clergy, including one which appears to fit the timeline of Fr. Peter Hullermann as reported by the German newspaper Die Zeit earlier this month.

Hullerman was, according to the newspaper, removed from ministry in the Diocese of Essen in 1979 over allegations of abuse of an 11 year old boy. Early the following year, he was moved to the Munich archdiocese and given a place to live in a rectory while he was sent for psychological therapy.

He was not supposed to be given any role in the archdiocese, but he was later allowed into ministry and went on to abuse again, after Raztinger had left the archdiocese to become prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1982. The archdiocese’s former Vicar General has publicly stated that Archbishop Raztinger was not involved in the decision to allow Hullerman to minister as a priest in the archdiocese, and he has taken personal responsibility for the decision.

Benedict, who is now living in semi-secluded retirement in a monastery in the Vatican, submitted more than 80 pages of testimony to the independent review, which was published last week. At a press conference launching the report, one of its principle authors said that some of the former pope’s claims of ignorance regarding some of the cases highlighted in the report were “difficult to reconcile with the documentation.”

In response to the report, which Benedict received a copy of on the day of its publication, the pope emeritus issued a statement acknowledging documentation showing he was present at a meeting to discuss a priest, apparently Hullerman, moving to the archdiocese in 1980 — something he had previously denied and now accepts was “objectively incorrect.”

Benedict’s statement, issued through his private secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, said that he was “very sorry for this mistake and asks to be excused.” The error was “not done out of bad faith, but was the result of an error in the editing of his statement,” Gänswein said, while insisting that “no decision was made in this meeting about a pastoral assignment of the priest in question,” and that the report bears this out.

The statement included Benedict’s expressions of “shame and pain” about the suffering of victims in his former archdiocese over the decades, similar to several statements he made on the wider abuse crisis which raged throughout his pontificate. Set alongside his admission that he’d got his facts wrong in his own submission to the investigation, some will question the pope emeritus’ sincerity. But are they right to do so, and how much responsibility should the former Archbishop Ratzinger shoulder for allowing a known predator into his diocese in the first place, whatever the circumstances?

The pope emeritus has said he will be making a further statement in due course explaining how he ended up at odds with the facts in the first place, and there’s certainly reasonable scope for a 94 year old to make a genuine error in producing a personal report on events that happened more than 40 years ago.

But, whatever context he is able to give in the future, in many ways what happened during Ratzinger’s time in Munich and after encapsulate what went so badly wrong with the Church’s handling of abuse cases, worldwide, in the second half of the last century, and the difficulty of making real reforms stick during the first decades of this one.

In dioceses across the West, and certainly in the United States, it was all too common for priests found to be sexual predators to be handled “pastorally,” which usually involved them being sent for psychological evaluation and treatment, and eventually returned to ministry to abuse again.

Church records from the era are full of examples of quack treatments, like encouraging abuser priests to dress in “mood appropriate colors” during therapy, supposedly helping to “cure” serial abusers of children and justifying their return to ministry. Indeed, in this country, so widespread was the practice of “therapeutic” rehabilitation instead of canonical prosecution that a kind of cottage industry sprung up around it.

Supporting this approach was a sense within diocesan chanceries, and more widely, that the idea and language of laws, crimes, and punishments in the Church was somehow retrograde and not in line with the “spirit” of the recently concluded Vatican Council II. While the 1917 Code of Canon Law was still meant to be in operative force (and was more than equipped to deal with the crimes of abuse in the Church), many if not most bishops considered its provisions an anachronism, soon to be replaced by a new Code of Canon Law which would be, it was assumed, more suited to the times.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, both the accuracy of the Munich report and the sincerity of Benedict’s mistake, we are left with an account which places his leadership of an archdiocese in the late ‘70s through early ‘80s on a par with his peers at the time. If that doesn’t sound sufficiently damning to the pope emeritus’ critics, it’s certainly no vindication of him either.

Much of Ratzinger’s tenure as head of the CDF, and Benedict’s time as pope, was consumed with dealing with the legacy of exactly the kind of administrative culture the Hullerman case typifies, and which resulted in the abuse of we may never know how many minors.

The extent to which his actions in Munich will now be referenced against his work as prefect and pope to reform the legal way in which the Church handles cases of abuse — for example through the landmark legislation Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela — encapsulates well a problem with which the Church is already all too familiar: How does a hierarchy credibly address a problem which was a creation of its own culture and attitudes to begin with?

There are no easy answers to that question. And, as the current furore around Benedict shows, there are few, if any, reforming heroes with perfect records. But the Munich report, and Benedict’s public engagement with it, does illustrate one important, albeit slow-moving, cultural change which has begun in the Church: transparency.

The extent to which the Church and her leaders are willing to engage frankly and honestly with the failures of the past, near and distant, is crucial to ensuring that legal reforms are met by the culture of accountability needed to make them work.

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