The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In clergy abuse scandals, the Catholic Church still hasn’t reckoned with what it allowed

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in 2015 at a ceremony in St. Peter's Basilica. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

Reports of clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church have become so routine — and the scale of victimization and coverup so vast — that the effect is to dull the impact of each new revelation. It appears that over the course of decades, practically every higher-up in the institution knew, or should have known, what was going on.

Yet even the apparent sameness of so many disclosures and admissions, over so many years, should not blunt the importance of a recent report that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, as archbishop of the German cities of Munich and Freising from 1977 to 1982, failed to discipline abusive priests and enabled them to maintain their roles in ministry.

Similar allegations have been leveled, and often documented, regarding many bishops. But the German report, two years in the making, implicates a future pope, who at the time was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Even the ensnarement of a pope in the culture of coverup is not new. Pope John Paul II was blamed by a 2020 Vatican report for casting a blind eye at the culture of abuse generally, and of enabling the advancement of Theodore McCarrick, the former cardinal of D.C., who was later condemned for sexual abuse and stripped of his status as a priest.

The new report, commissioned by the German Catholic church and conducted by a law firm, is based on the church’s own documents and accounts from witnesses. “In a total of four cases, we came to the conclusion that the then-archbishop, Cardinal Ratzinger, can be accused of misconduct,” Martin Pusch, one of the authors, said in a news conference in January at the report’s unveiling.

In the course of the law firm’s inquiry, the former pope’s lawyers denied he had been at a meeting in 1980 in which the fate of a priest accused of pedophilia had been discussed. But when documents showed he had in fact attended the meeting, the former pontiff acknowledged through a spokesman that his previous assertion was “objectively false.”

Nearly two weeks after the report’s publication, Benedict finally came around to asking forgiveness for “abuses” and “errors” that happened on his watch — but not his own “abuses” and “errors.” He continues to deny any wrongdoing.

In the course of his papacy, from 2005 to his resignation in 2013, as the scope of abuse became increasingly obvious, Benedict did meet with abuse victims and moved to eject abusers from the church.

Yet even now, the scandal, the church’s most devastating in centuries, continues to swell. A massive French report last fall suggested there had been more than 200,000 victims of abuse in that country over the previous seven decades. Weeks later, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in an annual audit, documented more than 4,200 new allegations of sexual abuse of minors in the year ending in June. Most of them involved alleged incidents from decades earlier.

More than 1 billion Catholics worldwide remain faithful to a church that has delivered comfort, good works and education. Yet many are disillusioned by an institution that, even as it has made strides to reform its rules and culture, remains unable to fully face the extent of suffering it caused and allowed.

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