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Benedict XVI apologizes for clerical abuse but admits no personal responsibility

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI sits in St. Peter's Basilica on Dec. 8, 2015. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)
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ROME — Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on Tuesday expressed his “profound shame” to the victims of clerical abuse, and he said he was pained by “errors” that occurred in various places across his career in the church. But he stopped short of acknowledging any specific personal responsibility after a church-commissioned German report accused him of mishandling four cases during his time running the archdiocese of Munich between 1977 and 1982.

“However great my fault may be today, the Lord forgives me, if I sincerely allow myself to be examined by him, and am really prepared to change,” the 94-year-old retired pope wrote.

At the same time Tuesday, a legal and academic team that had assisted Benedict offered a full-throated defense, saying Benedict — known then as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — was never involved in any “cover-up of acts of abuse.” The canon lawyers and academics said the German investigation was short on evidence to prove its claims.

Benedict XVI corrects earlier statement, admits to presence at 1980 meeting to discuss abusive priest

Benedict, who stepped down as pope in 2013, has been under renewed scrutiny for weeks because of the Munich report, which detailed decades of abuse in the archdiocese. Although popes dating back to John Paul II have been ensnared by the global abuse crisis, never had a future pope been accused in such detail of mishandling specific cases.

The letter from the academics and canon lawyers, which the Vatican emailed to reporters, amounts to a direct pushback in defending Benedict’s legacy.

While Benedict’s own letter was full of spiritual references — sin and forgiveness and facing final judgment — he also made it clear that he valued the support from his legal team, which he called a “small group of friends.” He said they had compiled the initial 82-page testimony sent to the Munich investigators on his behalf, analyzing documents from his time as archbishop.

Members on the legal team addressed several of the accusations against Benedict, trying to clear his name on every count.

They mentioned, first of all, the case that has gotten the most attention — that of an accused pedophile priest who was transferred to Munich while Benedict was archbishop, given therapy and then permitted to resume regular duties. Benedict’s team had initially told the investigators that he wasn’t in attendance at a 1980 meeting to discuss the priest. Days after the report’s release, Benedict acknowledged a falsehood, saying that he had indeed been present.

The legal team tried Tuesday to clarify what happened, saying that one of Benedict’s collaborators — church lawyer Stefan Korta — had “inadvertently made a transcription error.”

“One cannot impute this transcription error to Benedict XVI as a conscious false statement or ‘lie,’ ” the letter said.

The legal team also said that in the 1980 meeting, according to the records, the priest’s sexual abuse was never discussed.

“Joseph Ratzinger was neither aware that [the priest] was an abuser, nor that he was included in pastoral activity,” the letter said.

Benedict, the first pontiff to abdicate in 600 years, has been living in a monastery inside the Vatican. His pontificate was defined by a series of abuse-related crises, and on several instances he met with abuse survivors. Critics charge that he did not do enough to address the scourge, saying he was slow to appreciate the systemic nature of the problem. While he defrocked hundreds of priests, he did not punish bishops found to have covered up cases of shielded abusers.

In his letter, Benedict referenced some of his meetings with survivors, writing that he had seen firsthand the effects “of a most grievous fault.”

“As in those meetings, once again I can only express to all the victims of sexual abuse my profound shame, my deep sorrow and my heartfelt request for forgiveness,” Benedict wrote.