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The Attack on Benedict XVI

When the former pope denies serious allegations against him, it is worth looking at alternative explanations before accusing him of lying.

“It is impossible that scandals should not come,” Christ says in St. Luke’s Gospel, but “woe to him through whom they come. It would be better for him, that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should scandalize one of these little ones.”

Christ’s warning is often cited in the context of clerical abuse in the Catholic Church. That is certainly a fitting application of the passage; to destroy the faith of a young person, particularly while wearing the Roman collar, is a sin that cries out to Heaven for vengeance. But using “little ones” as a byword for “children” is a modern treatment of Christ’s words. In the Gospel, Christ uses phrases like “little ones” and “least of these” to refer not only children, but all the simple faithful—those easily scandalized and led astray by the wiles and misdeeds of the clerical elite. The sin of sexual abuse among the clergy not only scars the immediate victim and imperils the eternal soul of the abuser. It undermines the faith of Christ’s “little ones” in the divine character of the Church.

This understanding of Christ’s words was essential to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and his handling of clerical sexual abuse on the throne of St. Peter. Benedict was harsher on clerical abusers than his immediate predecessors, expanding the authority of Vatican officials to prosecute accused priests and instituting stricter norms against those credibly accused of abuse. Benedict wished, in his words, to protect “not only the right of the accused” but “goods such as the Faith” which “are equally important.” He laicized more than 400 abusive priests in the last two years of his pontificate and was the first pope to meet with victims of clerical abuse.

But Benedict’s handling of clerical-abuse cases—and his explanation of their cause—have not been without controversy. A recent report from the Archdiocese of Munich, for example, claims that then-Bishop Joseph Ratzinger failed to laicize or otherwise discipline three priests accused of abuse while Ratzinger was in charge of the archdiocese between 1977 and 1982. The report was conducted as Catholics in Germany continue their “Synodal Path,” a commission to address past abuse within the German church and agitate for doctrinal and disciplinary changes in the universal Church.

The 95-year-old Benedict issued an 82-page response last week with the help of a law firm, disputing the report’s findings and denying any wrongdoing.

“In none of the cases analyzed by the expert report was Joseph Ratzinger aware of sexual abuse committed or suspicion of sexual abuse committed by priests,” Benedict’s representatives wrote. “The expert report provides no evidence to the contrary.” Further, his representatives argue that the “expert report contains no evidence for an allegation of misconduct or conspiracy in any cover up.”

Critics called Benedict’s response callous. Catholic writer D.W. Lafferty argued that “Benedict’s response is one of someone who either feels he is on trial and is speaking with utmost care, or someone who lives primarily in a world of abstract moral and legal principles. Not a papa.” Others took issue with Benedict’s failure to “take responsibility,” a question-begging criticism that effectively asks Benedict—who denies the allegations against him—to admit to something he claims not to have done.

While one might reasonably criticize the structure of Benedict’s response, which does not address the pain of victims until its concluding paragraphs, there is no mistaking the paternal character of Benedict’s message. He writes:

As in those meetings [with victims], 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.

Whether Benedict was too strident in defending his reputation I leave to the reader to decide. I can only say that if I were falsely accused of something so heinous—and for the sake of this analysis, I am assuming that the former Vicar of Christ on Earth is indeed telling the truth when he says the allegations against him are false—I can’t imagine I would let the allegations stand.

Many of the people criticizing Benedict—and from this I exclude Lafferty—resent his papacy and reject his theology.  As pope, Benedict liberalized the use of the pre-conciliar liturgical books to allow individual priests to celebrate the so-called “Latin Mass” without episcopal permission. Monsignor Luca Brandolini said that decision “was the saddest moment in my life as a man, priest and bishop.” Benedict reinstalled the Good Friday Prayer for the Jews in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass to the dismay of critics. As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Benedict, then-Cardinal Ratzinger, called for “a reform of the reform”—a call to restore order and reverence to the liturgy.

German Catholic media have long reviled Benedict, a stalwart opponent of efforts to change Church teaching and relativize the salvific message of Christ. In that context, the timing of these allegations is noteworthy. German Catholics are pushing for radical changes to Church teaching via its Synodal Path—a working group of lay activists and German clerics. Their most recent document calls on Rome to change the Church’s bimillenary teaching on homosexuality, institute a female diaconate, ordain women to the priesthood, abolish mandatory clerical celibacy, and democratize the election of bishops.

That these allegations were made against the face of Catholic orthodoxy in Germany at precisely the moment liberal German Catholics aim to overturn two thousand years of Catholic moral teaching is not to say the allegations are not true. It is only to say that, as a Catholic, when the former Roman Pontiff denies serious allegations made against him, it is worth looking at alternative explanations before you imply he is being dishonest.