The Church, rather than civil authorities, held principal authority over investigations
On the 11th of February this year, Pope Benedict XVI announced his pending resignation. It is increasingly being insinuated that his resignation has more to do with the allegations of sexual abuse – which have haunted the Catholic Church over past decades – than the Pope’s “lack of strength of mind and body.”
On Thursday, February 21st, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, claimed that, around the time that Pope Benedict XVI decided to step down, he became aware of a faction of homosexual bishops within the Vatican who may have been vulnerable to blackmail by a group of Roman male prostitutes. He purportedly commissioned a 300-page report into the subject, a report that has now been put on clandestine standby for his successor to deal with. The Vatican has yet to confirm or deny the claims made by La Repubblica.
Within the greater context of Pope Benedict’s career in the Catholic Church, it is difficult to understand why revelations of yet another sex scandal would impel him to resign. Indeed, for more than a decade Benedict has served as the Catholic Church’s principle point of response to allegations of abuse.
Between 1985 and his election to the papacy in 2005, Benedict was the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. This is a powerful body within the Vatican whose primary duty is to police Church doctrine. In those days Pope Benedict XVI went by the name of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. In 2001, Pope John Paul II transferred authority for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse to Cardinal Ratzinger’s office. In this role, Ratzinger received tens of thousands of complaints alleging the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. These documents supposedly went into great detail and Ratzinger was deeply disturbed by the experience.
Within this role Ratzinger was dubbed “God’s Rottweiler” for his rigid interpretations of Church doctrines and acute enforcement of rules. He frequently tackled issues regarding predatory priests behind the closed doors of the Vatican, so to be completely out of the eyes of the public, thus protecting The Church’s reputation.
The following are the most notable examples of how Ratzinger, at various stages in his career, dealt will situations and allegations of sexual abuse.
In 1977 Ratzinger was appointed the Archbishop of Munich. During his time in this role he protected a paedophile priest, Peter Hullermann, from prosecution. He did this by transferring Hullermann from parish to parish as parents made complaints of abuse. In 1980 Ratzinger was responsible for sending Hullermann to Munich for therapy. He was also responsible, against the advice of the Psychiatrist, for sending Hullermann back to resume pastoral work. Only a few years later, in Bavaria in 1986, Hullermann was convicted of sexual abuse.
Another instance is that of Father Lawrence Murphy. Murphy was the head of a school for deaf boys in Wisconsin in the US. He is believed to have molested more than two hundred children during his time there. In 1996 Ratzinger ignored letters from Rembert Weakland, the archbishop of Milwaukee, who was seeking guidance from the cardinal on how to proceed against Murphy. The Church did eventually instigate a canonical trial against Murphy. However, when Murphy personally appealed to Ratzinger for clemency, claiming poor health, the cardinal intervened and halted the proceedings against him.
In 2001, after Pope John Paul II had endowed the then Cardinal Ratzinger with all authority regarding sex abuse allegations, and after he procured access to thousands of documents containing allegations against predatory priests, Ratzinger took definitive action. He sent a letter to every single one of The Church’s bishops. In it he laid out the church’s framework for investigating claims of sexual abuse. He asserted that The Church, rather than civil authorities, held principal authority over investigations. He also maintained that The Church had a right to keep evidence, in such cases, confidential until 10 years after a minor had turned 18. This assertion, on Ratzinger’s part, led to accusations by victim’s rights advocates that he was committing a worldwide, gross obstruction of justice.
In 2010, in an effort to bring closure to those affected by sexual abuse within the Catholic church, two auxiliary bishops, Eamonn Walsh and Ramond Field, who were both accused of covering up allegations of abuse, gave Pope Benedict their resignations. Pope Benedict rejected both and informed the two Bishops they would keep their posts.
By 2010 the austere, hard-line approach to allegations of sexual abuse advocated by Pope Benedict XVI had simply become unsustainable. Ongoing, volatile and expansive reports of sexual abuse, including allegations against Benedict himself regarding his time in Munich, surely opened The Church up to the wrath of public opinion. The Irish government had by now instigated investigations that had unearthed prolific and widespread abuse, thus cementing Ireland as a ground zero for the scandal at large.
In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI wrote a formal apology to his parishioners in Ireland. “You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured… Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity violated. Many of you found that, when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen.”
It was an institutional move that was both highly acclaimed and highly criticised. His apology was dubbed a band-aid solution: symbolic and passive. No mechanisms for supporting victims and preventing future abuse were formulated. Furthermore, no instrument, or definitive approach, with which to address future and present situations of abuse was established.