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Benedict leaves a conflicted legacy on clerical sexual abuse

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Before leading the Roman Catholic Church as Benedict XVI, and before dominating the Church as a powerful cardinal and the Vatican’s chief doctrinal watchdog, Joseph Ratzinger, Archbishop of Munich, attended a 1980 meeting about a priest from northwest Germany accused of abusing children. .

What exactly happened during the meeting is unclear – but subsequently the priest was transferred and over the next twelve years moved around Bavaria to different parishes before ending up in the small village of Garching an der Alz, where he sexually abused Andreas Perr, then 12.

“It’s so heavy,” Mr Perr said on Tuesday, pulling cigarettes outside the house where he was attacked, a few steps from the white steeple of the village church. He said his abuse led him down a road marred by drugs and prison as he Archbishop Ratzinger had risen through the ranks of the church. Speaking of retired Pope Benedict XVI, who died on Saturday, he added, “to think of the power one person could have over your life.”

Last year, a report commissioned by the Catholic Church in Munich accused Benedict of mishandling cases of sexual abuse by priests. Benoît apologized for any “serious misconduct” but denied any wrongdoing.

The scourge of child sexual abuse in the church haunted Benedict from the start of his rise through the ranks until his final year as a frail, retired pope, when Munich investigators added a final complication to a deeply conflicted legacy.

For his followers, he is the leader who met the victims for the first time and – more than anyone before him – forced the church to finally face its demons, change its laws and get rid of hundreds of priests. abusive. He raised the age of consent and included vulnerable adults in laws protecting minors. He authorized the lifting of statutes of limitations for sexual abuse.

To critics, he shielded the institution from the victims of his flock, failed to hold a single bishop accountable for protecting abusers, and failed to back up his words with deeds. He preferred to maintain discipline internally, never requiring that cases be reported to civil authorities.

“We can be grateful for what Benedict XVI has done to bring the fight against abuse in the Church to a new level by introducing stricter procedures and new laws,” said Reverend Hans Zollner, one of the top Vatican experts on the protection of minors and sexual abuse. “He was the first pope to meet survivors of abuse. At the same time, given the report that during his years as Archbishop of Munich he failed to pay due attention to victims of abuse and hold perpetrators accountable, we cannot ignore that victims and others suffer.

Mr Perr, now 38, is still trying to rebuild a life after what the church put him through. He is no longer a member of the Catholic Church.

As Archbishop Ratzinger rose to greater heights, Mr. Perr’s life spiraled toward a deeper and deeper abyss. His mother refused to believe him, and he ran away from home and took heavy drugs like heroin, living on the streets.

“After it happened I started having nightmares,” he said. “That’s what drove me to do drugs. I wanted to stop dreaming, to stop feeling guilty and disgusting. I didn’t want to feel anything anymore. »

Over the years, Mr Perr has ended up in jail twice and was only granted parole last year.

It was then that he found criminal lawyer Andreas Schulz, after learning that Ms Schulz was representing other victims of abuse by the same priest. Together, they decide to aim higher: they will bring a civil action, not only against the priest accused of assaulting him and several boys in Garching, but also against the Archdiocese of Munich and Joseph Ratzinger, then its archbishop.

Prior to Benedict XVI’s death, the pope emeritus hired a major international law firm and said he planned to defend himself in a trial due to begin this year. Now Mr. Schulz and his client plan to continue the case even after his death, and they still want to hold Benedict XVI, or the heir to his estate, accountable.

Mr. Schulz said it could even be Benedict’s successor, Pope Francis, who would inherit the business, if he becomes Benedict’s heir. The lawyer argued that the church should accept the lawsuit as an opportunity to finally unravel the complicated story left behind by Benedict XVI.

“His theological achievements are only one aspect of his legacy,” Schulz said. “But there are shadows hanging over him, and those shadows can only be removed now if the right thing is done and accountability is accepted. This is something only Pope Francis can do now, and this is what our lawsuit is trying to move towards: people want transparency, they want acceptance of responsibility, they want compensation.

Accounts such as Mr. Perr’s have become painfully familiar in the church over the past few decades. The exposure of systemic abuses has gutted dioceses and driven out the faithful in countries around the world.

In the United States, a scandal that broke out in Boston shook almost every region of the country. The Church of Ireland, once a stronghold of Catholicism, has been so decimated by abuse scandals that Benedict wrote in 2010 the first pastoral letter from a pope on the issue of abuse. “You have been through a lot, and I’m so sorry,” he wrote. A 2021 report in France alleged that hundreds of thousands of children had been abused by the church there.

Church leaders, who once viewed the crisis as an invention of liberals and lawyers, or as a problem of English-speaking countries hyped up by anti-Catholic news media, now recognize that it is everywhere, and Francis, after his own missteps, introduced rules to hold the hierarchy more accountable.

But Benedict’s supporters, and even his detractors, recognize that Francis relied on Benedict’s reforms. Before the flood that overwhelmed the church, cases poured in in the 1980s – often from English-speaking countries – and landed on his desk at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

In 1988, he pressed the Vatican’s canon law department – which demanded lengthy church trials to answer the charges – to give him a freer hand to weed out abusive priests more quickly. He refused, arguing that such a move would deprive the priests of due process and as a result the bishops either sought to heal them through prayer and therapy or simply moved the abusers to other parishes, where they preyed on more children.

But Cardinal Ratzinger’s office also failed to act in egregious cases. In the 1990s he broke up a secret trial of an American priest who had molested up to 200 deaf boys and wrote to the cardinal insisting the priest had already repented. He was never defrocked.

In 2001, Cardinal Ratzinger persuaded Pope John Paul II to let him try to get the problem under control. He drafted an ecclesiastical law that required bishops to forward all credible allegations of abuse to the Vatican, where his office was made responsible for cases.

He backed U.S. bishops who sought to enact a “zero tolerance” policy that expelled priests who engaged in a single episode of sexual abuse. . As Jean-Paul neared the end of his pontificate in 2004, Cardinal Ratzinger ordered a review of current affairs in his department.

In 2005, for the Good Friday Via Crucis procession at the Colosseum in Rome, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: “How much dirt there is in the church, especially among those who, in the priesthood, are supposed to belong totally” to Christ.

When he became pope, he disciplined – and eventually defrocked – the Reverend Marcial Maciel Degollado, a serial abuser and the Mexican founder of the religious order Legionaries of Christ. A prodigious fundraiser, Father Maciel had won the loyalty of Pope John Paul II and his inner circle, who had for years blocked Benedict’s efforts to investigate him.

“The issue is very mixed and complex,” said Marie Collins, an Irish abuse survivor who resigned in frustration in 2017 from a Vatican commission on the protection of minors created by Francis. She said Benedict’s reading of so many cases as head of the doctrinal congregation made him “grasp the enormity of the problem when he became pope”, and that he introduced new procedures against abuse. sexual.

Ms Collins said it was ‘unfair to overdo’ the mistakes he made in handling cases during his personal ministry, when he was a bishop in Germany, but Benedict, as pope, “did not do enough in-depth work on the issue or pursue it to the fullest extent.

For many, it didn’t go far enough.

Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a victims’ rights and research group, said in a statement on the day of Benedict XVI’s death that he “leaves hundreds of guilty bishops in power untouched and a culture of secrecy”.

On Tuesday evening, in the Munich cathedral that Benedict ruled as bishop 40 years ago, the current archbishop, Reinhard marx, began a mass in honor of Benedict inviting everyone to pray, including “those who have suffered abuse and suffering in the church space. Everyone who received good gifts from Joseph Ratzinger. And all who now, in this hour, believe that God’s goodness and mercy will heal everything.

Jason Horowitz brought back from Rome, and Erika Solomon from Munich and Garching an der Alz, Germany. Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting from Rome, and Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin.

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