Benedict's brief papacy was marred by the priest sex abuse scandal

The priest sex-abuse scandal was the albatross around the neck of Pope Emeritus Benedict’s brief eight-year reign as leader of the Roman Catholic Church, according to Vatican analysts.

Long-suppressed allegations that priests had been preying on children — and that the bishops covered up the crimes — were already roiling the church when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope in April 2005 and took Benedict as his papal name.

Like his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, Benedict also apologized to the victims and then took some steps to punish the predators.

“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,” he said in February.

But critics say that the actions Benedict took, which included meeting with and apologizing directly to some victims, were “too little, too late” and that his legacy may forever be stained by the failure to fully address a plague that many say roils the church to this day.

They say Benedict should have known better, because, before he became pope, he ran, for 24 year, the Vatican department that dealt directly with priest sex abuse allegations — the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

“He had an inside view of what was going on,” said David Gibson, the director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University, who is the author of “The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World.” “His office dealt with these accusations. He knew how bad it was. But he had such a high view of the priesthood, and that affected his judgment.” 

In an email, NBC News Senior Vatican Analyst George Weigel said that criticism of Benedict is “far too harsh and betrays an ignorance of what Ratzinger did at CDF to address the abuse crisis and what he did as pope.”

“He spoke forcefully about cleaning the Church of ‘filth,’ he worked hard to get the judgment of the worst cases moved to CDF so that the miscreants could be dealt with decisively, and as pope he met with victims on several occasions,” Weigel wrote. “He and John Paul II were also instrumental in reforming seminaries, so that potential abusers were less likely to get through the system.”

Known as “God’s Rottweiler” for his hardline conservative Catholicism, Benedict shared his predecessor’s “fortress mentality” when it came to defending the church, Gibson said.

When John Paul II’s native Poland was part of the old Soviet bloc, accusations against priests were routinely dismissed as fabrications by the communist secret police to undermine the church.

“Benedict didn’t have that, but he grew up in the Nazi era, and he did have the sense of the church being under siege, not by communism but by secularism,” Gibson said.

Benedict jump-started the process to discipline and defrock pedophile priests, and he ordered an inquiry into sex abuse by priests in Ireland that led to a shake-up in the top ranks of the nation’s clergy.

Pope Benedict at St. Peter's Square at the Vatican (Michael Kappeler / picture alliance via Getty Image file)
Pope Benedict at St. Peter's Square at the Vatican (Michael Kappeler / picture alliance via Getty Image file)

In 2006, Benedict also forced the Rev. Marcial Maciel, the founder of a conservative Catholic order called the Legionaries of Christ and one of the church’s most notorious pedophiles, to retire “to a life of prayer and penitence.”

But eight years after Benedict stunned the church by suddenly retiring in 2013, he was confronted with allegations that he had known for years that Maciel had been preying on children.

“No, this is not correct,” Benedict’s longtime personal secretary Georg Gänswein said in a statement to the German newspaper Die Zeit.

While Benedict was never personally accused of sexual abuse, a Vatican report released in 2020 said both he and John Paul II ignored allegations that now-defrocked Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had been seducing seminarians.

“Benedict did take steps to discipline some priests, but he failed to find a way to punish the bishops,” Gibson said. “He couldn’t bring himself to do that, the most egregious example of that being Cardinal McCarrick.”

McCarrick pleaded not guilty in 2021 to sexually assaulting a teen nearly 50 years ago in Massachusetts. He is still awaiting trial and no trial date has been set yet.

Benedict was also accused in 2022 of mishandling four cases of priest sex abuse from 1977 to 1982 when he was the archbishop of Munich in what was then West Germany. Lawyers who drew up the report said Benedict categorically denied any wrongdoing.

“I think Benedict took a number of important steps to address the priest sex abuse issue, but the bar was so low it did not make a significant difference,” Gibson said.

Benedict was slow to react, Gibson said, because he “had such a pious, personalistic view of Christianity.”

That approach, he said, has been disastrous for the Catholic Church.

“People were rightly horrified by the sexual abuse allegations, but they were even more infuriated by the cover-ups,” Gibson said. “Allowing those responsible to go unpunished, that was unforgivable for many Catholics.”

The Vatican did not immediately respond to an NBC News request for comment Saturday. In January, when the report into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Germany’s Munich diocese was released, Benedict’s personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, told reporters that Benedict would “examine the text with the necessary attention,” in the coming days. He added that Benedict had expressed his “shock and shame” at “the abuse of minors during the years of his pontificate.

Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who became famous after his attempts to go after predator priests were dramatized in the Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight,” said Benedict “continued the cover-up of clergy sexual abuse by saying the right things but not taking substantive action.”

“Respectfully, Pope Benedict did very little to alleviate the suffering and loneliness of childhood sexual abuse victims,” Garabedian said. “The here-and-there limited action by Pope Benedict compounded the pain of clergy sexual abuse victims everywhere.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com