Pope Francis: Benedict XVI was ‘leader’ in responding to sexual abuse


Pope Francis visits Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at the Mater Ecclesiae monastery in Vatican City to exchange Christmas greetings Dec. 23, 2013. / Vatican Media

St. Louis, Mo., Nov 28, 2022 / 16:30 pm (CNA).

In a recent interview Pope Francis said his predecessor Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was a leader in “taking responsibility” and responding with transparency to clerical sexual abuse — the latest defense by the Holy Father of his predecessor, who is facing criticism in his native Germany for his handling of several abuse cases as an archbishop decades ago.

In the Nov. 22 interview published Monday by America Magazine, Pope Francis discussed a wide range of topics including the Church’s response to revelations of abuse by clergy. Francis said although “official statistics” show that clergy abuse makes up a very small percentage of all abuse cases in society, [i]f there had been only one case, it would have been monstrous.”

Before the 2002 “Boston crisis,” abusers were simply moved from place to place as part of the institutional cover-up, he said.

“The practice, which is still maintained in some families and institutions today, was to cover it up. The Church made the decision to not cover up [anymore]. From there progress was made in judicial processes, the creation of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors,” the pope said, as reported by America.

“Here, a great [example] is Cardinal [Seán] O’Malley of Boston, who had the mindset to institutionalize [the protection of minors] within the Church. When honest people see how the Church is taking responsibility for this monstrosity, they understand that the Church is one thing while the abusers who are being punished by the Church are another. The leader in taking these decisions was Benedict XVI.”

During his almost eight-year pontificate, which began in 2005, Benedict XVI dismissed hundreds of abusers from the clerical state, regularly met abuse survivors, and addressed the abuse crisis in Ireland in a 2010 pastoral letter. He resigned from the papacy in 2013.

This is not the first time Pope Francis has spoken in defense of his predecessor’s record on responding to sexual abuse. Amid an ongoing reckoning over Benedict XVI’s handling of abuse cases in Munich, where he served as archbishop from 1977 to 1982, Pope Francis called to offer his support to Benedict XVI as the pope emeritus faced criticism.

A lengthy investigative report, compiled by a German law firm and released in January, criticized the nonagenarian retired pope’s handling of four cases during his time in charge of the southern German Archdiocese of Munich and Friesing.

In two of the cases, the report says, clerics committed abuse while then-Archbishop Ratzinger was in office. While they were criminally sanctioned by secular courts, they continued to perform pastoral duties, and no action was taken against them under canon law. In a third case, a cleric convicted by a foreign court worked in the Munich Archdiocese, and in a fourth case, a priest already accused of abuse was moved to Munich in 1980, where he committed further acts of abuse.

The 1,000-page report — which has drawn some criticism for its $1.53 million price tag —  covered the years 1945–2019 and identified at least 497 victims of abuse as well as 235 alleged perpetrators, including 173 priests, during the 74-year period.

For his part, Benedict issued a grave apology to victims of sexual abuse, while four of his advisers defended his actions in each of the four cases mentioned in the report in a three-page rebuttal.

“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,” Benedict wrote.

“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.”

The advisers insisted that Benedict was not “aware of sexual abuse committed or suspicion of sexual abuse committed by priests” in any of the cases mentioned in the report.

Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict’s longtime personal secretary, told EWTN in February that the pope emeritus “is being accused of something that contradicts 25 years of his work” in making the Church more transparent and effective at dealing with sexual abuse.

After leaving the Munich Archdiocese in 1982, the future pope served as prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). In 2001, Pope John Paul II entrusted the CDF with investigating allegations of clerical abuse worldwide.

Gänswein said in February that Benedict encountered “internal resistance” at the Vatican as he sought to take decisive action against abusers but was able to overcome it with the Polish pope’s support.

“He did not only play a decisive role, he was the decisive figure, the decisive man; the one who not only suggested transparency, but also took concrete steps towards transparency. One can say, he is the ‘father of transparency,’ and thus he also managed to convince Pope John Paul II,” he said.

Sexual abuse is, Pope Francis said in the Nov. 22 interview, “a ‘new’ problem in its manifestation, but eternal in that it has always existed. In the pagan world they commonly used children for pleasure,” he said, going on to express his deep worry about the scourge of child pornography.

“The Church takes responsibility for its own sin, and we go forward, sinners, trusting in the mercy of God. When I travel, I generally receive a delegation of victims of abuse,” he noted.

On the topic of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Pope Francis was asked about the apparent lack of transparency when it comes to accusations against bishops, compared with the handling of accusations against priests. The pope called for “equal transparency” going forward, adding that “if there is less transparency, it is a mistake.”

In the America interview, Pope Francis also discussed the role of bishops, why women cannot be ordained priests, racism, polarization, the Vatican-China deal, and whether he has any regrets from his time as pope.

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  1. “Benedict XVI was ‘leader’ in responding to sexual abuse”.
    Yes! Thank you, Pope Francis, for setting the record straight!

  2. But is the lead being followed righteously with due rigour?

    The AMERICAN JESUIT MAGAZINE link has the full interview and you might find the comments section in the report very informative.

    The question for abortion was loaded, “heavily politicized”. The Holy Father did not reorient the question as he should have done, i.e., by saying that it is an excellent thing to have a strong and unflinching focus and purpose in the face of this evil.

    It was also a Catholic moment he didn’t meet. The Church teaches that at conception the soul and body are united already. The Holy Father got tangled up avoiding “personhood” as an unsettled issue thereby feeding a) the ambiguities which the industry and ideologues thrive on and b) the polarization and divisions suited to them.

    On the same head page with the interview report at AMERICAN JESUIT MAGAZINE, they are promoting Karl Rahner the heretic as a figure of recent Church history and apparently a related point of focus for the present intervention by the Holy Father.

    I have ten other points on the whole interview. Please may I share them for whatever benefit they may convey.

    1. The Cross is division, Jesus Christ said it.

    2. Temptation is the Devil. Pharisees, Saducees, Essenes and Zealots do not comprise the totality of temptation for the Church that is “always in the Church”.

    3. To condition in advance all the Holy Spirit will do is Pelagian whether or not “for the sake of harmony”. What good is it if you never announce the Gospel – 2 Cor. 5:15.

    4. There is no singular “Catholic spirit”. To say that there is a singular “Catholic spirit” while professing “not reducing things to a single value”, is a contradiction. Though, if you want to talk about sacrament, do say that.

    5. In addition, “Catholic spirit” is not what is proposed by “the People of God”.

    6. When lay Catholics engage the world in just ways for just aims, in their varieties, it is not divisiveness and/or polarization, it is lay freedom that could include non-harmony.

    7. Nor is it a problem for the bishop to “resolve” nor a “problem internal to bishop conference”. To say it necessarily devolves into “and/or” is non sequitur and becoming artificial.

    8. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit did not bring disruption in order to bring order. The Holy Spirit commanded their attention and infused His graces.

    9. Methodological deconstruction and reconstruction is Modernism.

    10. Diplomacy like dialogue is multi-faceted and multi-channel. The Provisional Agreement with China is said to be a pastoral work-through while yet is conflicted in self-imposed non-pastoralism.



    • Some fine insights, Elias. When I read the interview, the theologically and philosophically inept comments made by the Pope regarding abortion also jumped out at me for their egregious lack of sound Catholic teaching as well as some potentially quite harmful pandering to the secular world as you also point out.

      Assuming that the Pope’s responses to the questions put before him are accurate and sufficiently complete without some intentionally misleading editing (quite possible with America Magazine), what the Pope is reported to have said in part is the following as set forth in America Magazine:

      “In any book of embryology it is said that shortly before one month after conception the organs and the DNA are already delineated in the tiny fetus, before the mother even becomes aware. Therefore, there is a living human being. I do not say a person, because this is debated, but a living human being.”

      I don’t know what books on embryology the Pope has seen, but even if the development he speaks about is accurate, it doesn’t matter that such occurs and the mother may not be aware of it. So what? Many things in the early life of the child in the womb occur for which the mother is not aware, but emphasizing what occurs just short of a month after conception, and then stating that such is evidence of a new human being, opens the door to the destructive notion that life does not begin at conception, and so some abortions shortly after conception may be okay.

      Since it has been demonstrably shown (despite naysayers claiming otherwise) that all human life begins at conception and not later during a pregnancy, this reality must be made crystal clear before mentioning what takes place later during a pregnancy. Moreover, what takes place later in a pregnancy only helps confirm the conclusion that life begins at conception; it is not the evidence that a “living human being” is now present. If we assume that the Pope knows that human life begins at conception, then we must seriously question why he did not emphasize this all-important reality, but instead chose to mention an aspect of fetal development and conclude such is the evidence of a “living human being.”

      Now, while the Pope’s emphasis on what occurs shortly before a month after conception is indeed problematic, what is absolutely egregious is his statement regarding the reality and status of the child in the womb: “I do not say a person, because this is debated…”

      …“because this is debated.” This deserves an even louder So What?! The bogus debate on personhood wherein some people deny that the child in the womb is a person is based on purely subjective criteria of what constitutes personhood that purposely excludes the child in the womb. Moreover, many who favor abortion make the insidious claim that ‘even if the fetus is human, it’s not a person, and so it is morally acceptable to murder a fetus because it’s not a person.’ And now, based on the harmful ignorance of the Pope who proclaims that the personhood debate is an ongoing legitimate debate, he opens another door to those who will seize upon his words to proclaim that even the Pope does not claim the fetus is a person, and as such it does not deserve to be protected from abortion even though the Pope does not favor abortion.

      Why did the Pope feel the need to emphasize his unintelligent neutral position on the so-called personhood debate? How can this do anything but harm the pro-life anti-abortion cause for the reasons already stated as well as others? He could have stopped with his sloppy statement about fetal development, which was bad enough as previously discussed, but then he makes it a point to emphasize that he’s not sure of the personhood of the child.

      Bravo, Pope Francis. As you stated long ago was part of your modus operandi as Pope, you have succeeded once again in making another mess. But, contrary to how you view such things, all of these messes bring about much more harm than any possible good.

      • Gilberta, DocVer, thank you. CWR articles and comments are very helpful to me and an enjoyable engagement, yours among them too.

        I accept the point made, about the problem of editing. I would add mis-translation and non-translation. I have a Spanish acquaintance who is quite regular and orthodox and insists that Pope Francis in Spanish comes across normal -USUALLY nothing remarkably wrong and everything good. And this is true too.

        Where these things apply I would stand corrected if I have over-run any issue. In my own impulses I try to be mindful to contribute with some conditionality or tentativeness that is meant to defer to the possibilities of media “shift”.

        Yet, some things are clearly jarring, his proposing the legalization of homosexuality “civil union” (this is integral corruption of law), the change of the Our Father, the undermining of the Traditional Mass, the non-intervention on the abuses of the Novus Ordo (slowness to acknowledge/attend to them, etc.), the sway of insults to one type of effect or side, not the other, in effect changing meanings; and so on.

        The whole question of intentionality with certainty! Surely the apostolate of the Holy Father is founded on this.

        But where he might be dealing with a specific deviant personage, maybe then it might be different, he could act with more flexibility.

        The Opus Dei charism as I understand it is a personal apostolate and sanctification of work. This is the apostolic inspiration of the founder Escriva and you can’t subjugate that to “missionary discipleship”. It is already a form of mission and discipleship all its own given in the Holy Spirit and identified with the Church.

        An eschatological reality.

        They do not boast about it. They say “canonizable” more than “apostolic”. Very charming.

        They do not need to “find their original charism” by being denied their bishop and collected into the dicastery of clergy. The reason the founder is called “The Father” is because of the originality of the charism and the gift of God. He didn’t have to be a bishop.

        But the reason Escriva’s successors may be called “the Father” is because they are meant to be bishops. Is because they ARE bishops. If ever there was some extraordinary problem with one such bishop -still, Opus Dei would not belong in a dicastery for clergy, the situation would have to be dealt with on its own terms.

        You see what I mean. God bless.

  3. Elias above – Thanks for your observations. I’ll go with them rather than drive myself totally around the bend by trying to read PF’s interview.
    I do thank him for his positive comments re Pope Benedict and clergy sex abuse.

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