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Benedict XVI and the long history of scandal-plagued popes

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in 2015. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images)
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Catholic Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI committed “wrongdoing” in the way he handled sexual abuse cases in his German archdiocese before he was pope, according to a church-commissioned investigation released Thursday. The German law firm that conducted the investigation said Benedict’s claims to have no direct knowledge of sexual abuse cases were not credible.

The report amounts to a shocking and harsh condemnation of the retired pope — the first pope to resign in 600 years.

German investigation accuses Benedict XVI of ‘wrongdoing’ in handling of abuse cases while archbishop of Munich

Though his predecessor was canonized and his successor has generally been popular, Benedict is not the first pope among the nearly 270 in history whose scandals have caused Catholics and the Catholic Church headaches.

The period between the late 9th and 10th centuries saw some particularly bad popes, according to historian Eamon Duffy in his book “Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes.” During this “saeculum obscurum,” or “dark century,” the papacy became little more than a trophy in a rivalry between greedy noble families, and many of these popes were more interested in these petty feuds than glorifying God or abiding by the vows of the priesthood.

There was Pope Stephen VI, in power from May 896 to August 897. His predecessor was pope for only 15 days before dying, perhaps of gout or perhaps killed by Stephen VI’s followers. Once installed, Stephen VI put his enemy — another of his predecessors — Pope Formosus, on trial, which was kind of weird considering Formosus had been dead for months. His corpse was dressed in papal vestments and propped up on a throne before being found guilty of perjury and other offenses, mutilated and tossed into a river. The people of Rome thought that was pretty gross, and they soon deposed and killed Stephen VI.

Then there was Pope Sergius III, pope from 904 to 911, who killed his predecessors, bribed and threatened bishops, and fathered an illegitimate child. Sixteenth-century Catholic historian Caesar Baronius called him an “execrable monster” and “worthy of the rope and of fire.”

This period also saw the papacy of John XII, who became pope at 18 in 955. He spent of much of his time sleeping around and warring with rival factions. As 15th-century chronicler Bartolomeo Platina put it, “If he had any time to spare from his lusts, he spent it in hunting and not in prayer.” He died in 964 in the bed of a married woman, either of a stroke, being stabbed by the woman’s husband or thrown out the window by said husband, depending on which account you believe.

The dark century wasn’t the only period to produce scandal-tainted popes. Pope Boniface VIII, who was pope from 1294 to 1303, was depicted as being destined for the eighth circle of hell in Dante’s “Inferno” for the sin of simony — that is, selling religious sacraments and holy offices. Though he did some useful things like codifying canon law, he was generally more focused on the temporal realm than the spiritual. His critics even claimed that he was a nonbeliever and that he said pedophilia was no more a sin than “rubbing one hand against another.”

Pope Leo X had the distinction of being head of the Catholic Church in 1517, granting so many indulgences that criticism over them from a German priest named Martin Luther launched a whole new branch of Christianity.

Martin Luther shook the world 500 years ago, but did he nail anything to a church door?

Where other popes veered into lives of excess, Pope Paul IV, who led the church from 1555 to 1559, was controversial for his extreme austerity (with the exception of having statues of himself installed all over Rome). He cut off Sistine Chapel muralist Michelangelo’s pension, banned books and made begging illegal. No one in Paul’s Rome had it worse than the Jews; he confined them to a ghetto, made them wear yellow hats whenever they left and ordered dozens burned at the stake. He was so hated when he died that celebratory rioters tore down many of his statues; others were mocked with yellow hats.

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