Former Pope Benedict XVI failed to take action against clerics in four cases of alleged sexual abuse when he was archbishop of Munich and Freising, a report has found.
Munich law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl (WSW) was asked to investigate allegations of sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising between 1945 and 2019 and whether church officials handled those correctly.
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The report, commissioned by the archdiocese two years ago and presented to the public on Thursday, said there were at least 497 victims of abuse, mainly young men and boys. Many other cases had probably not been reported, said the lawyers.
WSW said that Benedict XVI strongly denies any wrongdoing. Benedict, now 94, has been living in the Vatican since resigning as pontiff in 2013.
The lawyers were tasked with finding out who knew what and what actions they took. Attention has focused on Benedict’s time as the archbishop, between 1977 and 1982, when he was called Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Presenting the report for WSW, lawyer Martin Pusch said Benedict had done nothing about the abuse in four cases.
“We reached a consensus that there was a failure to act,” said Pusch.
The report also faulted the current archbishop of Munich and Freising, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, a prominent ally of the current head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, in two cases.
The archdiocese and the law firm said that top church officials were informed of the results before its publication. Marx declined an invitation to attend the report’s presentation.
Thousands of victims of historic abuse
In two of the four cases, the perpetrators were punished by the judicial system but were kept in pastoral work, Pusch said. No action was ordered under canon law.
In a third case, a convicted cleric was put into service in the Munich archdiocese, he added.
An interest in the abuse victims was “not recognisable” in the former pope, Pusch said.
He added Benedict had initially shown a “defensive attitude” when responding to questions for the report. However, he reportedly later changed his attitude and gave a detailed written statement.
When the church abuse scandal first flared in Germany in 2010, attention swirled around another case: that of a suspected paedophile priest whose transfer to Munich to undergo therapy was approved under Benedict, then Ratzinger, in 1980.
The prelate was allowed to resume pastoral work, a decision that the church said was made by a lower-ranking official without consulting the archbishop. In 1986, the priest received a suspended sentence for molesting a boy.
In an extraordinary gesture last year, Marx offered to resign over the Catholic Church’s “catastrophic” mishandling of clergy sexual abuse cases, declaring that the scandals had brought the church to “a dead end”.
Francis swiftly rejected the offer but said a process of reform was necessary and that every bishop must take responsibility for the “catastrophe” of the abuse crisis.
In 2018, a church-commissioned report concluded that at least 3,677 people were abused by clergy in Germany between 1946 and 2014. More than half of the victims were 13 or younger, and nearly a third served as altar boys.
Marc Artzrouni, a coordinator for Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said the Vatican should take stronger action to ensure similar failings do not occur in the future.
“What’s really needed is recognition of the crimes committed in the past … compensation and actions to make sure these things don’t happen again,” Artzrouni told Al Jazeera.