Benedict Did the Most to Battle Clergy Abuse but Was Criticized

As cardinal and pope, he pursued accountability while taking no responsibility himself
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 1, 2023 12:55 PM CST
Benedict Did the Most to Battle Clergy Abuse but Was Criticized
Pope John Paul II gives his blessing in 2004 to the Rev. Marcial Maciel, who was long accused of raping seminarians.   (AP Photo/Plinio Lepri, File)

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is rightly credited with having been one of the 20th century's most prolific Catholic theologians, a teacher-pope who preached the faith through books, sermons, and speeches. But he rarely received credit for another important aspect of his legacy: having done more than anyone before him to turn the Vatican around on clergy sexual abuse. As cardinal and pope, Benedict pushed through revolutionary changes to church law to make it easier to defrock predator priests, and he sacked hundreds of them. He was the first pontiff to meet with abuse survivors. And he reversed his revered predecessor on the most egregious case of the 20th century Catholic Church, the AP reports, finally taking action against a serial pedophile who was adored by St. John Paul II's inner circle.

But much more needed to be done, and following his death Saturday, abuse survivors and their advocates made clear they did not feel his record was anything to praise, noting that he, like the rest of the Catholic hierarchy, protected the image of the institution over the needs of victims and in many ways embodied the clerical system that fueled the problem. "In our view, Pope Benedict XVI is taking decades of the church's darkest secrets to his grave with him," said SNAP, the main US-based group of clergy abuse survivors. Matthias Katsch of Eckiger Tisch, a group representing German survivors, said Benedict will go down in history for abuse victims as "a person who was long responsible in the system they fell victim to," according to the dpa news agency.

In the years after Benedict's 2013 resignation, the scourge he believed was limited to a few countries had spread to all parts of the world, per the AP. Benedict refused to accept personal or institutional responsibility for the problem, even after he himself was faulted by an independent report for his handling of four cases while he was Munich bishop. He never sanctioned any bishop who covered up for abusers, and he never mandated that abuse cases be reported to police. But Benedict did more than any of his predecessors, and especially more than John Paul, under whose watch the wrongdoing exploded publicly. And after initially dismissing the problem, Pope Francis followed in Benedict's footsteps and approved still tougher protocols to hold the hierarchy accountable. Benedict "acted as no other pope has done when pressed or forced, but his papacy (was) reactive on this central issue," said Terrence McKiernan of the online resource BishopAccountability, which tracks global cases of clergy abuse.

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As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict tried as early as 1988 to persuade the Vatican to let him remove abuser priests quickly. Vatican law at the time required long and complicated canonical trials to punish priests, and then only if more "pastoral" initiatives to cure them failed. That proved disastrous, enabling bishops to move abusers from parish to parish where they could rape and molest again. Under Ratzinger's watch as cardinal and pope, the Vatican authorized fast-track administrative procedures to defrock egregious abusers. Among the first cases was that of the Rev. Marcial Maciel, founder of the Mexico-based Legionaries of Christ religious order. Despite volumes of documentation dating from the 1950s showing Maciel had raped his young seminarians, the priest was courted by John Paul's Curia because of his ability to bring in vocations and donations. Their case languished for years as powerful cardinals on Ratzinger's board blocked investigations. But Ratzinger finally prevailed, and the Vatican sanctioned Maciel to a lifetime of penance and prayer.

(More Pope Benedict XVI stories.)

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