August 20. 2022. 6:42

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Benedict accusations push German Catholic Church into tailspin

Questions to answer: Then Pope Benedict XVI with Cardinal Friedrich Wetter (left), Cardinal Freising Reinhard Marx (right) and Archbishop of Freiburg and head of the German Bishops’ Conference Robert Zollitsch (second left) in 2011. Photograph: Wolfgang Radtke


When Joseph Ratzinger became archbishop of Munich and Freising in May 1977, he took as his episcopal motto “Co-operatores Veritatis” – fellow worker in the truth.

That motto, from the third letter of St John, followed him to Rome in 1982 as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the rebranded Inquisition – and then as pope for eight years until 2013. For Benedict, God’s church is the truth and – as His representative on Earth – he, by extension, is part of that truth.

On Thursday, lawyers commissioned by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, today’s archbishop, presented another truth: a report accusing Marx, Ratzinger and other former Munich archbishops since 1945 of systemic failure to address clerical sexual abuse.

They found almost 500 abused children and youths and 235 perpetrators. Many abusing priests were known to their superiors and 42 cases have been forwarded to the public prosecutor.

The sexual abuse – and clerical obfuscation – mirror almost 1:1 the 2009 Murphy report into abuse in the Dublin archdiocese.

Over nearly 2,000 pages, the Munich lawyers document a litany of cases of avoidable suffering children and youths faced at the hands of perpetrator priests who were often protected and enabled by their employer.

Confronted with these cases, lingering in their own diocesan archive, surviving bishops responded with legal hair-splitting, claims of ignorance or talk of “different times”.

On Thursday, as with Yvonne Murphy in 2009, it fell to a lawyer to remind German bishops of how far they had betrayed their own teachings.

Examination of conscience

Dr Miriam Westphal, one of the investigators, opened Thursday’s press conference recalling how she was taught to prepare for her own First Communion more than 50 years previously: an examination of conscience before seeking absolution with remorse. It was a good and healthy practice, she added.

“What is asked of 10-year-old children,” she said, “must be the yardstick for the institution of the church and its leading representatives.”

All eyes are now on the 94-year-old retired pope and “co-worker of truth” and how truthful he is being about his pre-Rome days.

The report presents a paper trail which investigators say links the 264th successor to St Peter to four cases of problematic priests in Munich: a child abuser, an exhibitionist, an abuser-transvestite and a paedophile photographer.

Presented with these cases, and the claim that he consistently failed to intervene, the former pope provided an 82-page written denial. In it he often avoids answering questions, attacks “biased” investigators, challenges their accusations’ legal basis and – most often – insists he had no knowledge of the cases in question.

Germany’s Catholic Tagespost daily defended the retired pope on Friday, saying the report – with its circumstantial evidence of memos, personnel files and minutes of meetings he may have attended – lacked a decisive, smoking gun.

‘Gravity of situation’

Thursday’s presentation reflected the report, it added, “where robust facts have to take a back seat to a morally-charged show”.

Germany’s leading Catholic lay organisation took a different line, asking bishops: “When will consequences follow that reflect the gravity of the situation?”

That is the question for next Thursday when Cardinal Marx faces the press. In 2010 he commissioned the same investigators to trawl through the same files and they produced a report that presumably contained similar findings. But Cardinal Marx suppressed that report, citing legal problems.

After one case leaked, suggesting Archbishop Ratzinger failed to act against an abusing priest, his former deputy in Munich took the fall.

Unlike 2010, however, Joseph Ratzinger is no longer pope and the Catholic Church, an ancient and troubled institution in self-preservation mode, has followed the House of Windsor and tossed a problematic member under the bus. Pope Benedict, it seems, is having his Prince Andrew moment.

Like Queen Elizabeth in 1992 – and in several years since – Pope Francis has annus horribilis ahead with the German church.

When Cardinal Marx faces questions on Benedict next week, he will have to respond to claims that he broke church rules by failing to report two recent abusing priests to Rome.

With similar accusations levelled against the archbishops of Cologne and Hamburg, the futures of Germany’s most senior clerics are as unclear as a stalled synodal reform process – and Germany’s Catholic Church itself.

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