Did Benedict XVI Cover Up Clerical Sexual Abuse?

Q: Can you please explain why in Germany they are attacking the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, claiming that he covered up child sexual abuse by priests when he was Archbishop of Munich?  Can this be true?  I cannot believe it is possible … as Pope he fought against pedophile priests….—Gianni

A: This is certainly a timely question, since Benedict XVI just issued a letter this week on this very subject (more on that later).  Gianni is referring to brand-new allegations which


are all the rage in the German news media these days.  They allege that when Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was the Archbishop of Munich and Freising, he failed to report several cases of clerical misconduct to the Vatican, as required.  These reports, and the avid attention which many journalists are giving them, prompt three different questions:
(1) Back when then-Archbishop Ratzinger was in Munich, what were bishops required to do, when allegations of clergy sex-abuse arose in their dioceses?
(2) Are the accusations against then-Archbishop Ratzinger true? and
(3) Why are we hearing about this now, for the very first time?
Let’s take a look.

(1) Back when then-Archbishop Ratzinger was in Munich, what were bishops required to do, when allegations of clergy sex-abuse arose in their dioceses? 

To begin with, let’s bear in mind that Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI, was Archbishop of Munich and Freising from 1977 to 1982.  The Vatican had issued an Instruction back in 1962 which would have been in force during that period: it’s called Crimen sollicitationis (Cs), subtitled “On the Manner of Proceeding in Cases of Solicitation.”  The “solicitation” referred to here is that of priests hearing confessions, soliciting penitents for sex (see paragraph 1 of the Instruction for a more detailed definition).  Note for the record that in this context, the document didn’t refer exclusively to the solicitation of minors; the act is a crime whether the penitent is young or old, male or female.

Cs stated that a Catholic who had been solicited in this way was to make a denunciation of the priest to the diocesan bishop, or to the Vatican if the person preferred (paragraph 19).  Paragraph 2 emphasized that bishops were not in any way to ignore these kinds of allegations, or to delay dealing with them: “it is enjoined upon them, by an obligation gravely binding in conscience, to ensure that causes of this sort henceforth be introduced, treated and concluded as quickly as possible before their own tribunal” (emphasis in original).  The Instruction stressed this urgency again in paragraph 27, stating that once a denunciation had been received, the diocesan bishop was “bound by a grave obligation” (emphasis in original) to inform his Promoter of Justice, who was then to investigate.  And paragraph 66 was adamant that no bishop “is ever to omit informing the Holy Office [known today as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or CDF] immediately upon receiving any denunciation of the crime of solicitation.”

If you skim the Instruction quickly, you might mistakenly conclude that it only pertained to the “solicitation” described above.  But at the very end of Cs, we find a section that expanded the application of the entire document to other crimes.  This section was entitled Crimen pessimum, or “the worst/foulest crime,” a term frequently encountered in Vatican documents in decades past.  It was a polite way of referencing morally abhorrent acts which Vatican officials didn’t want to describe so openly—although for clarity’s sake, in Cs they did come out and define it in paragraph 71:

The term crimen pessimum is here understood to mean any external obscene act, gravely sinful, perpetrated or attempted by a cleric in any way whatsoever with a person of his own sex.

Paragraph 72 then immediately described (with evident distaste!) how the procedures described in the Instruction are to apply also to clergy established to have engaged in these homosexual acts:

Everything laid down up to this point concerning the crime of solicitation is also valid, with the change only of those things which the nature of the matter necessarily requires, for the crimen pessimum, should some cleric (God forbid) happen to be accused of it before the local Ordinary…

But there are even more immoral acts which are covered by Cs, mentioned in the following paragraph:

Equated with the crimen pessimum, with regard to penal effects, is any external obscene act, gravely sinful, perpetrated or attempted by a cleric in any way with pre-adolescent children of either sex or with brute animals. (73)

So, to sum up, Cs provided diocesan bishops with a required procedure for dealing with clergy accused of soliciting sex in the confessional; homosexual activity of any kind; sexual activity of any kind with children of either gender; and bestiality.  Victims were expected to denounce the cleric-perpetrator to either the bishop (or directly to the Vatican, if they’d rather); the bishop was required to forward the denunciations to the chancery officials charged with investigating their veracity; and if they were deemed credible, the accused cleric was to be put on trial.  In the meantime, the bishop was to “immediately” inform Rome of what was happening, and follow any directives that the Vatican might give him.  The message to diocesan bishops was clear: if/when confronted with a case like this, they were not to ignore it, to dismiss it out of hand, or to sweep it under the rug!

The very beginning of the Instruction clearly indicated that it was to be kept secret, “for internal use,” and was not to be published.  It applied worldwide, and was disseminated to diocesan bishops all around the globe.

Or was it?

Incredibly, this Instruction may have been addressed to all the Catholic bishops of the world, but it has long been an established fact that it was never properly promulgated—in other words, it was never sent to the very men to whom it was addressed.  It’s also worth noting that the Instruction was dated March 16, 1962, about seven months before the start of the Second Vatican Council, when thousands of bishops from around the world descended on Rome … and yet Cs wasn’t disseminated to the bishops while they were at the Council, either!  Instead, it appears to have been given to individual bishops on a case-by-case basis, which means that some dioceses knew all about it, while the rest didn’t even know that the Instruction existed.

The Vatican’s reasons for this bizarre and lopsided system of (non)distribution are not known.  Nor can it be determined who in the Vatican made the decision not to send it to every diocese.   But as was rightly observed in 2010 by a journalist for The Guardian (hardly a pro-Catholic publication!), “One might think that there was not much use in having a policy of secrecy so secret that not even the bishops bound to secrecy were allowed to know about it.”

Given this situation, we cannot assume that in the years following 1962 (when Cs was supposed to be promulgated and wasn’t), Bishop X of the Diocese of Y even knew that he was bound to its requirements.  On the contrary, odds are extremely high that he didn’t!  In fact, in a 2010 interview with this British Catholic news outlet, then-Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the former Promoter of Justice for the CDF, talked openly about the number of clerical sex-abuse cases which had been referred to the Vatican by bishops in past years.  The figures are astounding: Scicluna said that in the period between 1975 and 1983, not one bishop in the entire world forwarded such a case to the Vatican.  Either they had no sex-abuse cases in their dioceses; or they deliberately flouted Rome’s procedural directives as outlined in Cs; or, perhaps most likely, they dealt with clerical sexual abuse in their dioceses but didn’t know they were supposed to send the info to the Vatican—because they’d never seen or even heard of Cs, and had no idea that this Instruction required them to do so.

Granted, both justice and common sense dictate that if a cleric of the diocese is accused of harming someone in any of the ways described in Cs, a bishop should immediately want to determine the truth (or falsity) of the claims, and proceed to penalize the cleric if he is found guilty.  No bishop should ever need the Vatican to tell him to do that much!  But a bishop who was ignorant of the content of Cs would not automatically intuit any need to inform the Vatican of what was happening to a priest/deacon of the diocese—because this is a purely procedural norm.  Thus it is entirely credible that in the years following Cs, diocesan bishops who knew nothing of its existence were investigating clerics accused of any of these various sexual acts anyway, and punishing those who were found guilty … but these bishops weren’t reporting any of this to Rome.  Make note of this point, because we’ll be coming back to it later.

(2) Are the accusations against then-Archbishop Ratzinger true?

This brings us to the next point: what did then-Archbishop Ratzinger do (or fail to do), when confronted with cases of clerical misconduct in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising?  Remember that he was Archbishop there from 1977 to 1982, and Cs was in force that whole time—whether he knew it or not.

Germany’s state-run media outlet Deutsche Welle, or DW (akin to Britain’s BBC, or PBS in the United States), has led the charge, declaring on January 20, 2022 that “Ex-Pope Benedict XVI failed to act in child-abuse cases,” and that he “failed to take action against clerics accused of abuse.”  DW stated matter-of-factly that “a new report found that the former head of the Catholic Church covered up clerical sexual abuse between 1977 and 1982.”  The report they cited was issued by the Munich law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl, which had just released the results of an investigation they conducted into the handling of clerical sex-abuse cases in the Archdiocese of Munich, during the period 1945-2019.

One specific case upon which DW (and other media as well) have focused was that of a priest named Peter Hullermann, who was actually not from Munich at all, but from the Diocese of Essen.  Over the years, this priest allegedly abused 30 different young people in at least four different cities, in the German states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Upper Bavaria.  Here’s how DW describes what happened:

… [N]otorious child abuser Peter H … was transferred from Essen in western Germany to the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising in 1980, while Benedict, Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger at the time, led the archdiocese.

It gets worse: two German canonists (one from Bonn, the other from Tübingen) were recently interviewed by the same media outlet.  They had reviewed a criminal decree issued in 2016 by the Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, pertaining to an earlier investigation into the way that sex-abuse allegations had been handled over the years in the Archdiocese.  Both of them asserted that then-Archbishop Ratzinger had indeed violated the law by failing to report the case of Peter H. to the Vatican, as required by Cs.  They declared openly that at the time Ratzinger was Archbishop of Munich, “Everyone had to know about the initial offenses.”  Additionally, the two canon lawyers did not hesitate to criticize Ratzinger on moral grounds: “This is not how a good shepherd acts.”

Meanwhile, the head of the German Episcopal Conference (see “Are Catholics Supposed to Abstain from Meat Every Friday?” for more on what an Episcopal Conference is and does), Bishop Georg Bätzing of the Diocese of Limburg, has publicly called upon Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to apologize for his illegal actions while he was Archbishop of Munich and Freising.  Bishop Bätzing asserted that the conduct of the former Archbishop Ratzinger in this regard has caused “immense damage” to the Church.

Adding fuel to the fire, the German law firm conducting the new investigation into the Munich Archdiocese recently asked Pope Emeritus Benedict if as Archbishop, he had ever had a meeting with/about the priest Peter H.—and Benedict denied it.  Subsequently, however, it was determined that in fact he had indeed been present at a meeting regarding this priest.  The German news media promptly declared that Benedict XVI is a liar, striving to cover up his own cover-up.

It all sounds pretty damning, doesn’t it?  But now let’s look at what really happened:

In 1980, after the priest Peter H.—who was from the Diocese of Essen, remember!—had been credibly accused, he was sent for therapy to a facility which happened to be located within the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising.  He was later permitted to engage in ministry in that Archdiocese, in 1982.  But note that he was not given this permission by Archbishop Ratzinger, who had already left the Archdiocese!  In November 1981, Ratzinger had been called to work at the CDF in Rome by Pope John Paul II, whereupon he resigned as Munich’s Archbishop on February 15, 1982.  Msgr. Gerhard Gruber, the vicar general of the Archdiocese of Munich at the time, had agreed to the admission of Peter H. into the Archdiocese.  Archbishop Ratzinger had not even been present at this meeting!

The news reports regarding the critical statements made by the two above-mentioned German canonists quickly caught the attention of other canon lawyers in Germany.  What instantly sounded suspicious was that (as mentioned above) the criticisms made by the two were based on a criminal decree issued in 2016 by the Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising.  This fact wouldn’t necessarily raise the eyebrows of the general public, but experienced canonists like this one from Munich do not hesitate to point out that such decrees are never made public—so how did the news media and the two German canonists supposedly get hold of it now?

As for the Pope Emeritus’ erroneous claim that he had not attended any meetings regarding the priest-abuser Peter H., it’s worth pointing out that he has subsequently acknowledged that he failed to remember being present at one such meeting.  Should we therefore dub Benedict XVI a “liar”?  If you’re not sure, go find a 94-year-old, and ask him whether he ever attended a meeting about So-and-So back in 1981.  But on top of that, we know that Benedict hasn’t sought to hide any meetings about Peter H, because in a 2020 biography of Benedict XVI, there is specific mention of then-Archbishop Ratzinger being present in a meeting about the priest-abuser from Essen.  Clearly the Pope Emeritus did not hide anything, because he remembered and shared this info with his biographer-interviewer at that time!

And note that while then-Archbishop Ratzinger did indeed attend a meeting about Peter H., it was not to discuss the abuser’s ministry in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising; instead, the meeting took place in 1980, and it was merely about permitting the priest Peter H. to be admitted to therapy at a location in the Munich Archdiocese.  This whole matter has the German media in an absolute uproar—and yet it is a complete non-issue.

Gianni is spot-on when he notes that in the decades that Joseph Ratzinger spent working in Vatican City, he waged a consistent battle against clerical sex-abuse.  As we saw in “What Does it Mean to ‘Defrock’ a Priest?” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has been unjustly maligned by the press before, for allegedly failing to punish clergy who committed abuse—and yet as Prefect of the CDF, he was arguably the one church official who did the most in recent decades to ensure that abusers are appropriately punished for their actions.  It was the Prefect of the CDF, Cardinal Ratzinger, who was behind Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela (SST), the motu proprio document issued by Pope John Paul II in 2001 regarding (among other things) new procedures for handling clerical abuse cases worldwide.

Since SST was promulgated worldwide over 20 years ago, every Catholic bishop and religious superior on the planet is now required to inform the CDF whenever an allegation of sexual abuse is made against a cleric.  This procedural change was made to ensure that these issues are handled in a consistent manner throughout the entire Church—so that identical cases are not handled too leniently (or ignored altogether!) in one diocese or religious institute, while being addressed justly (or even perhaps too rigorously) in another.  While the superior still conducts the investigation that is now required by canon 1717, he must tell CDF what is happening, and follow the Vatican’s directions on how to proceed next.  (See “Canon Law and False Abuse Allegations, Part I” for more on this.)

There are upwards of 3,000 Catholic dioceses around the world, and many hundreds (maybe even thousands) of religious institutes, so this change in procedure represented what is in practice a huge change, incidentally creating an enormous amount of new, additional work for Vatican officials!  If Joseph Ratzinger was the type to sweep clerical sex-abuse under the rug, then why on earth would he have initiated this new process?  In reality, the former Cardinal Ratzinger was anxious that priest-abusers not be let off lightly, or ignored altogether, by diocesan bishops who were scandalously indifferent to the indescribable harm this abuse causes to its victims, and/or who were unwilling to get involved in the messy and painful process of investigating and punishing clergy who were found to be guilty.  Over the years, Ratzinger/Benedict has in fact demonstrated repeatedly that he is the exact antithesis of a bishop with the do-nothing-except-cover-it-up mentality.  He is, in short, the polar opposite of what he is accused of being!

In response to the media uproar, Benedict XVI publicly released a letter on this topic on February 8.  He notes that “Following the presentation of the report on abuse in the Archdiocese of Munich-Freising on 20 January last, I feel the need to address a personal word to all of you.”

Anyone who reads the letter hastily, without attention to detail, might wrongly conclude that the Pope Emeritus is apologizing for covering up clerical sexual abuse.  In actual fact he is doing nothing of the kind—because he himself has done nothing meriting a personal apology.  Instead, he humbly issues a heartfelt apology to abuse victims on behalf of the Church, which failed to protect them and failed to address their sufferings and obtain justice for them when they mustered enough courage to report what had happened to them:

In all my meetings, especially during my many Apostolic Journeys, with victims of sexual abuse by priests, I have seen at first hand the effects of a most grievous fault. And I have come to understand that we ourselves are drawn into this grievous fault whenever we neglect it or fail to confront it with the necessary decisiveness and responsibility, as too often happened and continues to happen. As in those meetings, once again I can only express to all the victims of sexual abuse my profound shame, my deep sorrow and my heartfelt request for forgiveness. 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. Each individual case of sexual abuse is appalling and irreparable. The victims of sexual abuse have my deepest sympathy and I feel great sorrow for each individual case.

Benedict is apologizing for the way that other clergy harmed them, while he himself was in office.  Now the news media are attacking him for failing to admit that he did wrong—see here, here, and here for just a few examples.  The uniform hostility of the media’s response to this letter is noteworthy.  This leads us logically to our final question.

(3) Why are we hearing about this now, for the very first time?

As was already discussed above, there is no known reason why the German news media, and two German canon lawyers from Bonn and Tübingen (i.e., not of the Archdiocese of Munich) would have suddenly obtained access in 2022 to a 2016 decree on this subject from the Tribunal in Munich.  Such decisions are not made public, and they certainly are never provided to the mainstream press.  It would logically appear, therefore, that someone in the Munich Archdiocese violated legal protocols and wrongly gave these people a copy of the decree.  It is just as mysterious that both the news media and these two canonists have focused exclusively on then-Archbishop Ratzinger, conveniently ignoring the rest of the content of that 2016 decree—which, as was previously mentioned, addressed praxis in the Archdiocese over a period of many years and many different Archbishops.  Die Zeit has reported in passing that the 2016 Munich decree was 43 pages long, and it’s fairly obvious that the account of Ratzinger’s less than five years as Archbishop there can’t possibly fill all or even most of those pages!

Likewise suspicious (to put it mildly) is the fact that the same Archdiocesan official who signed the 2016 decree had previously signed another one in 2010, on the same subject of the Munich Archdiocese’s praxis from 1945 to 2009 regarding clerical sex-abuse … and had reached exactly the opposite conclusion about Archbishop Ratzinger’s handling of such cases during his brief time there.  In 2010, the official had declared that it was “unlikely that Ratzinger had ever read” the Vatican’s unpromulgated Instruction Cs—in other words, like most of the bishops of the world, Ratzinger had not informed the Vatican about Munich’s clerical sex-abuse cases, because he didn’t know he was required to do so.  But in 2016, without indicating that any new evidence had come to light, the Munich official suddenly asserted that Ratzinger “must have known” and had deliberately failed to follow required protocol!  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Ratzinger’s brief tenure there as Archbishop has been politicized within the offices of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising.

One possible clue to a motivation for these new attacks on the Pope Emeritus can be found in a remark made by lawyer Marion Westpfahl, of the German law firm which released the results of its new investigation in January 2022.  She noted that the firm had naturally sought the personal involvement of the current Archbishop of Munich and Freising, Cardinal Reinhard Marx—who declined the law firm’s express invitation.  Why would Cardinal Marx fail to participate in an investigation into the Archdiocese of which he is now the head?

Ironically, the German news media have been trumpeting the fact that the 94-year-old Pope Emeritus had incorrectly claimed to have never attended any meeting about the Essen priest Peter H. over 40 years ago … but they’re neglecting to mention that Benedict only made this  mistake because he had promptly responded to questioning by the Munich law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl.  In contrast, that same news media doesn’t seem at all interested in asking why Cardinal Marx, who has been Archbishop of Munich and Freising since 2010–far longer than Ratzinger ever was–has not cooperated with the same law firm.

You would think, if you uncritically read the German news reports on this subject, that the law firm had investigated nothing but the short period when Ratzinger was Munich’s Archbishop, or that it had found no indications of any other clerical sex-abuse cases under other Archbishops at any other point in time!  In reality, the report described a total of 497 cases of sexual abuse in the Archdiocese between 1945 and 2019.  (By the way, the report definitely does not say that all of these 497 were mishandled by Munich’s Archbishops; rather, this is simply the number of abuse cases which came to light.)  You have to wonder why, given the inherently lurid nature of child sexual abuse by the clergy, the German press haven’t eagerly thumbed through the new report, and recounted at least some of the most horrific cases it uncovered.  Instead, if you read the German news, you would be forgiven for thinking that the only issues the report discusses involved the former Archbishop Ratzinger!

This brings us back to our question: Why is this story appearing in the news now, and why are some German church officials so eager to attack the Pope Emeritus?  Well, since there’s no evidence that the allegations against him have merit, and in fact they don’t make any sense in light of Ratzinger’s subsequent activity as Prefect of the CDF, one can only conclude that there is some kind of political strategizing going on here.

One possible explanation for it is that these journalists and church officials somehow might know through backchannels that there is genuinely damning evidence out there, implicating other Archbishops of Munich and Freising, and/or bishops/clergy of other German dioceses.  If such information is about to be made public, guilty parties might be anxious to create a distraction in advance.  Thus if they themselves are accused, they’ll be able to point to Benedict XVI and cry, “But he did it too!”  Attention will naturally then be concentrated on the German bishop who is the most well known around the world—which means less will be paid to the actual culprits.

It must be emphasized that this is only a theory!  But speaking in general political terms, it’s a common enough tactic and unfortunately, it can be quite effective.

Our Lord told us to “be wise as serpents and simple as doves” (Matt. 10:16).  As Catholics, therefore, a purely dove-like gullibility is beneath us.  Gianni is well to be skeptical of the allegations he’s heard against Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, because upon closer examination they just do not add up.  Whatever it may be, something is afoot.

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