Ex-pope Benedict XVI asked for forgiveness Tuesday for clerical child sex abuse committed on his watch, but aides rejected allegations of a cover-up while he was archbishop of Munich.
“I can only express to all the victims of sexual abuse my profound shame, my deep sorrow and my heartfelt request for forgiveness,” the 94-year-old said in a letter published by the Vatican.
The letter from the former pontiff — who stepped down in 2013 — was released in response to a German inquiry last month that criticised his handling of cases involving paedophile priests in the 1980s.
“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,” he wrote.
However, organisations representing abuse victims criticised the lack of specifics in his comments.
German group Eckiger Tisch said Benedict continued a Catholic Church tradition of declaring that “there were acts and faults, but no one takes concrete responsibility”.
Last month’s German investigation accused the former pope of knowingly failing to stop four priests accused of child sex abuse when he was archbishop of Munich between 1977 and 1982.
Benedict, who is in frail health, asked a team of aides to help him respond to the lengthy findings by law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl (WSW), charged by the archdiocese of Munich and Freising to examine abuse between 1945 and 2019.
The aides insisted in an accompanying statement Tuesday that “as an archbishop, Cardinal Ratzinger was not involved in any cover-up of acts of abuse”, using the pope’s birth name, Joseph Ratzinger.
In one case, a now-notorious paedophile priest named Peter Hullermann was transferred to Munich from Essen in western Germany where he had been accused of abusing an 11-year-old boy.
Benedict’s team has already admitted to unintentionally giving incorrect information to the report authors when they denied his attendance at a meeting about Hullermann in 1980.
But they denied any decision had been taken at that meeting about reassigning the priest to pastoral duties, and on Tuesday said the abuse had not been discussed.
“In none of the cases analysed by the expert report was Joseph Ratzinger aware of sexual abuse committed or suspicion of sexual abuse committed by priests. The expert report provides no evidence to the contrary,” the statement said.
In his letter, Benedict expressed hurt that the “oversight” over his attendance at the 1980 meeting “was used to cast doubt on my truthfulness, and even to label me a liar”.
Benedict, who lives in a former monastery within the Vatican walls, said he was grateful “for the confidence, support and prayer that Pope Francis personally expressed to me”.
Francis has said nothing in public although the Vatican defended Benedict last month, noting his meetings with abuse victims and introduction of laws to combat paedophilia.
Fear and Trembling
Before becoming pope, Benedict led the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation, giving him ultimate responsibility to investigate abuse cases.
In his letter, he spoke of “confession”, saying that every day, he asked himself whether he was guilty of “a most grievous fault”, using the phrase said during confession at Mass.
“In all my meetings… with victims of sexual abuse by priests, I have seen at first hand the effects of a most grievous fault,” he wrote.
“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.”
But his comments fell short of what the SNAP survivors network said was required.
“The opportunity for cleansing (that) the report out of Munich offered has been squandered,” it said, condemning Benedict’s “lack of candour”.
Benedict finished his letter observing that “quite soon, I shall find myself before the final judge of my life”.
“As I look back on my long life, I can have great reason for fear and trembling,” he wrote.
But he was nevertheless “of good cheer” as he prepared to “pass confidently through the dark door of death”.