Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI 

Abuse, Ratzinger: ‘Shame, sorrow, heartfelt request for forgiveness’

In a letter to the faithful of Munich, the Pope Emeritus speaks of clerical pedophilia, taking his cue from the words "mea maxima culpa" repeated at Mass: “We ourselves are drawn into this grievous fault whenever we neglect it or fail to confront it with the necessary decisiveness and responsibility."

By Vatican News

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI intervenes directly and personally to respond to the report on abuse in the diocese of Munich and Freising where he was archbishop for less than five years. He does so with a text filled with a penitential aspect, which contains his personal "confession" and a look of faith on the "most grievous fault" of abuses and cover-ups.

In the first part of the letter, Ratzinger thanks those who collaborated with him to examine the documentary material and prepare the answers sent to the commission. As he has already done in recent days, he apologizes again for the error, absolutely unintentional, about his presence at the meeting of 15 January 1980, during which it was decided to accept into the diocese a priest who required treatment. He also says he is "particularly grateful for the confidence, support and prayer that Pope Francis personally expressed to me."


In the second part of the letter, the Pope Emeritus says he is struck by the fact that the Church daily places at the center of every celebration of the Mass "the confession of our sins and a petition for forgiveness.  We publicly implore the living God to forgive our fault, our most grievous fault.” It is clear, Benedict continues, that "the words ‘most grievous’ do not apply each day and to every person in the same way. Yet every day they do cause me to question if today too I should speak of a most grievous fault. And they tell me with consolation that 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."

Joseph Ratzinger then recalls face-to-face conversations with victims of abuse committed by clerics. "In all my meetings, especially during my many Apostolic Journeys, with victims of sexual abuse by priests, I have seen at first hand the effects of a most grievous fault.  And I have come to understand that we ourselves are drawn into this grievous fault whenever we neglect it or fail to confront it with the necessary decisiveness and responsibility, as too often happened and continues to happen."

"As in those meetings," says the Pope Emeritus, "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.  I have had great responsibilities in the Catholic Church.  All the greater is my pain for the abuses and the errors that occurred in those different places during the time of my mandate.  Each individual case of sexual abuse is appalling and irreparable.  The victims of sexual abuse have my deepest sympathy and I feel great sorrow for each individual case."

Benedict XVI then says he understands more and more "the repugnance and fear that Christ felt on the Mount of Olives when He saw all the dreadful things that He would have to endure inwardly. Sadly, the fact that in those moments the disciples were asleep represents a situation that, today too, continues to take place, and for which I too feel called to answer. And so, I can only pray to the Lord and ask all the angels and saints, and you, dear brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God."

Ratzinger concludes his letter with these words: "Quite soon, I shall find myself before the final judge of my life. Even though, as I look back on my long life, I can have great reason for fear and trembling, I am nonetheless of good cheer, for I trust firmly that the Lord is not only the just judge, but also the friend and brother who himself has already suffered for my shortcomings, and is thus also my advocate, my ‘Paraclete’. In light of the hour of judgement, the grace of being a Christian becomes all the more clear to me. It grants me knowledge, and indeed friendship, with the judge of my life, and thus allows me to pass confidently through the dark door of death."

Along with Benedict XVI's letter, a short three-page annex was also published, written by the four legal experts - Stefan Mückl, Helmuth Pree, Stefan Korta, and Carsten Brennecke—who had already been involved in drafting the 82-page response to the commission's questions. Those responses, attached to the report on abuse in Munich, had stirred up controversy, and contained a transcription error that led to the assertion of Archbishop Ratzinger's absence at the meeting in which it was decided to accept a priest who had been guilty of abuse.

In their new answers, the legal experts reiterate that Cardinal Ratzinger, when he accepted the transfer of the priest who was to be treated in Munich, was not aware that he was an abuser. And in the meeting of January 1980, the reason why he had to receive treatment was not mentioned, nor was it decided to engage him in pastoral activity. The documents confirm what Ratzinger said.

The reason for the error regarding Ratzinger's initially-denied presence is then explained in detail: Only Professor Mückl was allowed to view the acts in electronic version, without being allowed to save, print, or photocopy documents. In the subsequent phase of processing, Dr. Korta inadvertently made a transcription error asserting that Ratzinger was absent on January 15, 1980. One cannot therefore impute this transcription error to Benedict XVI as a conscious false statement or "lie". Among other things, already in 2010, several press articles, never denied, spoke of Ratzinger's presence at that meeting, and the Pope Emeritus himself, in the biography written by Peter Seewald and published in 2020, claims to have been present.

Experts say that in none of the cases analyzed by the report was Joseph Ratzinger aware of sexual abuse committed, or suspicion of sexual abuse committed, by priests. The documentation does not provide any evidence to the contrary and in fact, answering precise questions on this point during the press conference of presentation, the same lawyers who drafted the report said that they presumed with probability that Ratzinger knew, but without this claim being corroborated by testimonies or documents.

Finally, the experts deny that the responses they drafted on behalf of the Pope Emeritus downplayed the seriousness of a priest's exhibitionist behavior. "In his memoir Benedict XVI did not minimize the exhibitionist behavior, but expressly condemned it. The phrase used as alleged evidence of minimizing exhibitionism is taken out of context." In his response, Benedict XVI had stated that abuses, including exhibitionism, are "terrible," "sinful," "morally reprehensible", and "irreparable." In the canonical evaluation of the event, “there was only a desire to recall that according to the canon law then in force, exhibitionism was not a crime in the restricted sense, because the relevant penal norm did not include in the case in point behavior of that type.”

The annex signed by the four expert advisors in law, for whose work the Pope Emeritus has taken responsibility, therefore contributes to clarifying what came out of Ratzinger's mind and heart, as well as the result of the research of his advisors. Benedict XVI reiterates that he had no knowledge of the abuses committed by priests during his brief episcopate. But with humble and deeply Christian words he asks forgiveness for the "most grievous fault" of the abuses and for the errors and underestimations that occurred during his tenure.

Listen to our report

Following the publication of the Pope Emeritus' letter, Cardinal Séan Patrick O'Malley, President of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, released a statement.

“Conscience speaks to us if we are prepared to listen," he writes. "In today’s message, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has provided us with an intimate description of the drama of his own conscience fashioned by a life of service to God and to his people. The evil suffered by victims of child sexual abuse by priests and religious and his handling of such abuse justly and necessarily weighs heavily on the conscience of the Pope-emeritus.

"His sober testimony reflects his awareness that moments of darkness and sinfulness have cruelly scarred survivors of child sexual abuse. Pope Benedict’s acknowledgement of the irreparable harm caused by sexual abuse in the Church and of his own failings to do everything to prevent such harm is a challenge to all those who hold positions of leadership in the Church. We must do better.

"To the survivors and all others affected by the evil of sexual abuse, Pope Emeritus Benedict offers his own contrition for what has been lacking in his stewardship. His witness and profound honesty should galvanize all of us to defend survivors of abuse and to protect all those entrusted to our care."

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08 February 2022, 13:00