It was a secret meeting. On Oct. 24, 1999, the Vatican’s top officials met at the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome’s Piazza Pio XII, all the cardinal prefects of the relevant congregations and their archbishop deputies, about fifteen people. I was to give a lecture on pedophilia.
Before me spoke a young moral theologian whose meticulous presentation amounted to the need to prevent the American bishops, in particular, from simply making short work of priests suspected of abuse. Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos, the prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, had set the tone when he read an American bishop’s letter to a priest: “You are suspected of abuse, you are to leave your home immediately, next month there will be no more salary… , in other words, you are fired”.
It was not difficult to urge compliance with legal standards here. But then Cardinal Ratzinger spoke up, praised the young professor for his diligence, but then explained that he was of a completely different opinion. Of course legal principles had to be observed, but one also had to understand the bishops. Abuse by priests, he said, was such an appalling crime and caused such terrible suffering to the victims that it must be dealt with decisively, and the bishops often had the impression that Rome was delaying everything and tying their hands. The panel sat there perplexed, there was cautious disagreement, and in the afternoon a heated controversy developed in his absence. The Pope cares.
Two years later, Ratzinger had succeeded in having Pope John Paul II withdraw the issue from the Congregation for the Clergy and assign it to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos reacted offended. I had previously advised him urgently to obtain international expertise, because I myself was obviously only able to report at second hand. I learned that in the margin of the interview note he had written: “Should be taken into consideration”. That was it.
But now he was no longer responsible, and I sat in front of Cardinal Ratzinger in the spring of 2002 and explained to him that it was all well and good that the Pope had transferred the responsibility to his Congregation, and that the press was satisfied: The pope cares! But in reality, I told him, he personally and his people had no idea about the subject. From my point of view, he must urgently seek information from international experts, invite them to the Vatican, for example…
He listened attentively and reacted immediately: “Why don’t you do that?!” That’s not what I had in mind. I explained that I had small daughters, that I was not comfortable with the subject, that I was also not a forensic psychiatrist, and that he should think about whether he really wanted to do this. “Yes, I want to!” So I made inquiries with leading German experts, attended international congresses, spoke with the world’s most renowned scientists, and coordinated everything with Monsignor Scicluna of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Cardinal Ratzinger emphasized that he also wanted the victims’ perspective to be mentioned and gave me a letter from the child psychiatrist Jörg Fegert, who had contacted him and whom I also invited. Thus, from April 2 to 5, 2003, the first Vatican Congress on Abuse came about. We met in the papal palace, all the curia authorities concerned with the problem were present, some hesitated to come and were personally “motivated” by Ratzinger in the process.
It was a very dense congress with very frank questions from the Vatican representatives and equally frank answers from the international experts, all of whom were not Catholic. They argued that offenders should be controlled, but not simply thrown out; otherwise — without social perspective — they would be more of a danger to society. At a dinner, some experts tried to bring this idea to Ratzinger’s attention, but he objected, saying that abuse was such a terrible thing that such perpetrators could simply not be allowed to continue to work as priests.
In 2004, at Ratzinger’s insistence and against strange resistance from the Curia, the lectures were published and sent to all English-speaking dioceses. On Good Friday 2005, while Pope John Paul II was on his death bed, Cardinal Ratzinger had taken on the task of formulating the texts for the Stations of the Cross at the Colosseum, and there it read: “How much dirt is there in the Church and especially also among those who in the priesthood should belong to Him (Christ) completely? (…) The soiled robe and face of Your Church shocks us.”
Four weeks later, he was pope. Talks with victims. Immediately he immobilized the criminal founder of the “Legionaries of Christ”, then, for the first time as pope, spoke with victims several times, which touched some of them very deeply, wrote to Catholics in Ireland that not to have done what should have been done, out of concern for the reputation of the Church, had been a scandalous crime. In 2010, a senior church official, who had falsely accused a priest, told me he could not take it back because he had to look out for the reputation of his institution. I was horrified.
When media inquired about this case, I turned to Pope Benedict. The answer came promptly: “Pope Benedict sends you a message: Speak up, you must tell the truth!” So from 1999 on, I had witnessed how decisively Joseph Ratzinger’s advanced against abuse, but what about before? I, too, was eager to see how the Munich report would turn out. Perhaps there were some wrong decisions, dilettantism, failure.
Then came the press conference. Journalists later complained about the actually disturbing theatricality, which did not distinguish between facts, assumptions and moral judgments. Only one point was clear: Ratzinger was convincingly shown to have lied about his presence at an ordinariate meeting, and furthermore, one of his answers was quoted as playing down exhibitionism. The subsequent judgments were — without knowledge of the text — predictable.
The reading of the Ratzinger portions of the text, however, revealed two surprises: In fact, after meticulous research by the reviewers, there was not a single piece of solid evidence in any of the four cases Ratzinger was accused of that he had knowledge of the abuse history. The only “proof” was the statement of two dubious witnesses to one case who, from hearsay, now claimed the opposite of what they had still affirmed years ago. Strange answers.
The minutes of said ordinariate meeting recorded simply that it had been decided to let a priest, who was coming to Munich for therapy, live in a rectory. Nothing about abuse, nothing about pastoral care. But above all, I was surprised that it was clear from some of the answers that this was not Benedict’s language. “His” remarks about exhibitionism belonged in the seminary of canon law, at best, and here they actually seemed grotesquely trivializing in an embarrassing way. In the meantime, it has become clear why this was the case. The 94-year-old man had of course not been able to look through the thousands of pages of documents himself. Employees had done that and made mistakes in the process. Contrary to his original answer that he had not attended a meeting 42 years ago, he had, in fact, been present.
In addition, the Chancellery had exhibited a strange questioning style. In part, the questions were rhetorical, suggestive, or mixtures of indictment and judgment. Anyone would have sought legal advice on such questions, as apparently did Pope Benedict. Finally, the clumsy questions of the Chancellery did not give him the opportunity to face the question of his personal responsibility. He has announced that he still wants to express himself on this and on the origin of the strange answers. It is to be expected that this will really be his text, and one should have the fairness to wait for this statement.
Of course, one can criticize Joseph Ratzinger; he himself has repeatedly called for this. Here, however, the impression arises that an old man who, of all things, has made groundbreaking contributions to the topic of abuse, which was originally completely foreign to him, has been dragged onto the stage in a sensationalist manner instead of finally pursuing the decisive questions: Why has no one in charge of the church in Germany openly admitted his personal guilt and voluntarily resigned?
Already in 2010 Pope Benedict said: “The first interest must be the victims. How can we make amends (…) with material, psychological, spiritual help.” Why, then, are victims still not supported in the effort to organize themselves in a truly independent manner, and why are they still not adequately compensated on an individual basis? Why does one expert opinion follow the next at a breathless gallop, without anything coming of it?
The victims’ representation at the German Bishops’ Conference rightly says that it is finally time for decisions and courageous action. For twelve years, there has been a justified demand in Germany for a truly independent, scientifically serious state investigation of both churches and the relevant sports associations. The Munich report has made it clear once and for all that it is now time for the state to take action!
(Editor’s note: This essay was published in the January 31, 2022 edition of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper and is published here, in an English translation by Frank Nitsche-Robinson, with permission of the author.)
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