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

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI does a blessing in February 2013 from the balcony of his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, on the outskirts of Rome. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)

ROME — A church-commissioned German investigation on Thursday accused Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI of “wrongdoing” in his handling of sexual abuse cases during his time running the archdiocese of Munich between 1977 and 1982.

The law firm that carried out the investigation said Benedict’s claims to have no direct knowledge of the cases were not credible. Its findings amounted to a searing judgment on one of the most influential Catholic figures of the last century.

At a news conference to unveil its nearly 1,900-page report, the firm said Benedict, known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the time of the cases, could be accused of wrongdoing in four of them, including one in which he knowingly accepted a priest into his archdiocese even after the cleric had been convicted of sexual abuse in a criminal court.

“The present findings indicate that Cardinal Ratzinger had knowledge of the history of the priest,” said Martin Pusch, one of the lawyers involved in the report.

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The report, commissioned by the archdiocese in Munich and compiled by German law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl, provides an exceedingly rare insight into how someone who went on to become a pope acted behind the scenes in one of the defining crises of modern church. The cases pertain to a time well before the scale of clerical abuse was common public knowledge.

While focus has narrowed in on the former pope’s role, the report, which was released after a midday news conference, looks at more than seven decades of cases within the archdiocese. It identified at least 497 victims over that period, and investigated allegations against 261 people, 205 of whom were clerics. Those figures do not reflect the entire scope of the abuse the investigators believe was happening, Pusch said. “We are convinced that the dark field in this regard is much wider,” he said.

Hundreds of pages of the report focus on a priest who sexually abused children, the Rev. Peter Hullermann. Allegations first arose against Hullermann in the late 1970s, and in 1980 — when Benedict was archbishop — he was moved from his diocese of Essen to Munich to undergo “therapy.”

The lawyers said Benedict’s statement that he was not present at the meeting during which Hullermann was reassigned was not plausible in their opinion. Ulrich Wastl, another lawyer involved in the investigation, described his response as “surprising,” as he was not listed as absent in minutes for the meeting.

Investigators said that Gerhard Gruber, the archdiocese’s vicar general during Ratzinger’s time as archbishop, had told them that he was “pressured to assume the sole responsibility" when the scandal erupted publicly in 2010. He told investigators that he “does not doubt” that Ratzinger had knowledge of Hullerman’s case when he was deployed into pastoral care, Wastl said.

Matthias Katsch, a spokesman for the Eckiger Tisch victims group, said that “the building of lies to protect Pope Benedict has just collapsed with a crash.”

German news reports have long raised questions over how complicit the retired pope was in enabling the priest to remain in church work involving children and continue to abuse.

In 1986, Hullermann was given a suspended jail sentence for abusing children but was still allowed to remain in the church. He was only removed in 2010, when it was discovered he was still working in close contact with children.

In the case of the priest with the abuse conviction, who was reassigned from overseas, the report said he had been sentenced to one year and four months in prison for a “large number” of cases of serious sexual indecency with male victims ages 15 and 16 in the 1960s. After he was released from prison, he lobbied to return to Munich, where he was assigned as a pastor by Benedict sometime in the mid- to late 1970s, the report said.

As Benedict had holidayed in the diocese, and spent at least part of his time at the priest’s former place of work with his successor, the experts said they suspect he knew about the conviction. “Archbishop Cardinal Ratzinger, through his behavior in this case, unilaterally gave priority to the interests of the church and priests over the interests of the injured party,” the report said. In his responses to the law firm, the former pope said he had no memory of the priest, no knowledge of his conviction, and had not been informed of it by his successor.

The Vatican said in a statement that it would pay “appropriate attention” to the report and reiterated the church’s “shame and remorse for abuses committed by clerics against minors.”

Benedict’s personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, did not respond to a request for comment. The Vatican’s official news arm quoted Gänswein on Thursday as saying that Benedict had no knowledge of the report, but would examine it.

“The Pope Emeritus, as he has already repeated several times during the years of his pontificate, expresses his shock and shame at the abuse of minors committed by clerics, and expresses his personal closeness and prayer for all the victims, some of whom he has met on the occasion of his apostolic journeys,” Gänswein said.

Even before the release of Thursday’s investigation, the multicontinent abuse scandal had endured as a bruising part of Benedict’s legacy. During his tenure as pontiff, he dealt with an explosion of cases across the global church, in what amounted to Catholicism’s biggest crisis in decades.

He went further than his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, in addressing the problems, defrocking hundreds of priests and meeting with clerical abuse victims in the United States — the first such meeting for a pope. But advocates saw his steps as insufficient, noting that he was slow to grasp the systemic nature of the clerics’ crimes and their coverup.

Most significantly, he did not mete out punishment against bishops who buried cases or transferred known abusers to new parishes. And he enacted few meaningful reforms to safeguard the church before stepping down in 2013, citing what he described as his “advanced age.”

Some church watchers note that Benedict, who spent his career defending the church against outside forces like secularism, helped to foster Vatican’s penchant for secrecy on abuse cases. Benedict has perhaps more direct knowledge of the crisis than any modern Catholic figure, because he presided over the Vatican’s powerful doctrinal department — which oversees abuse cases and punishment — before becoming pope.

Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, a Catholic University professor and psychologist on mental health issues within the church, said it is important to understand that Benedict would have been archbishop in the 1970s and 1980s when abuse was misunderstood both in religious and secular contexts.

Church policies have since been developed barring men from the priesthood if they have abused a minor, and cases of abuse must be reported to civil authorities. “Reading about it, it seems pretty black and white, but if you’re there 40 years ago, it would’ve been a little more murky, not as black and white as it sounds,” Rossetti said. “In retrospect, he would probably — if it were today — deal with it differently.”

The current archbishop of Munich and Freising is Cardinal Reinhard Marx, a close ally of Pope Francis and one of the pope’s advisory council members. Marx last year offered to resign, saying he felt it necessary to “share the responsibility for the catastrophe of the sexual abuse by Church officials over the past decades,” which included institutional and systemic failure. But Francis rejected Marx’s request to step down, saying that he should instead continue as a “shepherd” and carry out reforms.

Marx, who was faulted for his handling of two cases in Thursday’s report, said he was “shaken and ashamed,” and apologized in the name of the church.

Morris reported from Berlin. Vanessa Guinan-Bank in Berlin and Sarah Pulliam Bailey in New York contributed to this report.

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