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ROME—The last thing most people will now remember about Pope Benedict XVI is not likely his legacy as head of the Roman Catholic Church or his historic resignation in 2013.
Thanks to an investigation conducted by the German law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl, it is likely going to be that before he became pontiff, Joseph Ratzinger knowingly allowed rampant clerical sex abuse to continue when he was head of the Munich diocese. “During [Ratzinger’s] time in office, there were abuse cases happening,” Martin Pusch, who headed the investigation ordered by the German church, told reporters. “In those cases, those priests continued their work without sanctions. The church did not do anything.”
That global systemic sex abuse at the hands of priests went on unchecked for decades is well known by now. The German church had found that more than 3,600 victims had been raped and sexually abused by priests between 1946 and 2014, which led to the report.
What makes this case so important is that Ratzinger, before he became pope, also led the Holy See Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Catholic Church’s watchdog on policy. He was appointed to that position after his work in the German church, which is now clearly under question. Many victims of sexual abuse have long thought he did not do enough when he was head of the church’s doctrine office, which could have stopped the abuse from happening from the top, rather than ignoring reports.
In the case of the German church, Pusch said they can tie then-Ratzinger to a number of specific cases. “We believe that he can be accused of misconduct in four cases,” he said. “Two of these cases concern abuses committed during his tenure and sanctioned by the state. In both cases, the perpetrators remained active in pastoral care.”
Benedict, who was the first pope to retire in more than four centuries, said he did not remember the specific cases. “As far as you mentioning the moral abuse of minors by priests, I can only, as you know, acknowledge it with profound consternation,” he wrote at the time of his resignation. “But I never tried to cover up these things.”
Pusch accused the former pontiff, who is now 94, of being “defensive” in his cooperation with the report, which was commissioned by the German church of which Ratzinger was once an integral part. He referred to the resignation letter in his press conference and tried to shift focus by accusing the former pontiff of blatant wrongdoing, saying he “claims that he didn’t know about certain facts, although we believe that this is not so, according to what we know.”
Ratzinger was not the only German prelate found negligent. Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who currently heads the diocese of Munich and who is a key ally of Pope Francis, also “failed” in at least two cases, the lawyers said.
Marx offered his resignation to Francis last year when the report was commissioned. Francis told him to stay on his job. On Thursday, he apologized for the sins of the church, but not for his own—at least until he has had time to “digest” the accusations laid out in the report, which has not yet been published. “As the current archbishop, I apologize on behalf of the archdiocese for the suffering inflicted on people in the area of the church in recent decades,” Marx said in a statement. “Now is the time to pick up the momentum that the report gives and to take further steps into the future.”
But victims’ groups believe that the time for change has long passed. “To us, this is not shocking news,” SNAP, a survivor network, said in a statement. “Sadly, we see these unsavory actions and inactions surface years later, after lengthy silence by church officials and painful memories harbored by victims.”
Other survivors say the report will leave a darker mark on the former pope’s legacy. “This building of lies that was constructed here in Munich to protect Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict, collapsed today,” Matthias Katsch, who leads a group representing German clergy abuse survivors, told German media, calling the moment “historic.”
Marx, a spokesman for Benedict as well as the Vatican, said they would need to read the full report before making a comment. “The Holy See considers that appropriate attention should be paid to the document, whose contents are presently unknown,” the Vatican said. “In reiterating shame and remorse for abuses committed by clerics against minors, the Holy See expresses its closeness to all victims and reaffirms the efforts undertaken to protect minors and ensure safe environments for them.”