Saturday, 12 March 2016

What Pope Benedict Knew About Abuse in the Catholic Church

Pope Benedict XVI, in 2007, with his brother Georg Ratzinger, who, from 1964 to 1994, was the director of a Catholic boys’ choir that is the subject of a recent sex-abuse investigation.

The Brothers Ratzinger

The election of Pope Francis, in 2013, had the effect, among other things, of displacing the painful story of priestly sexual abuse that had dominated public awareness of the Church during much of the eight-year papacy of his predecessor. The sense that the Church, both during the last years of Benedict and under Francis, had begun to deal more forcefully with the issue created a desire in many, inside and outside the Church, to move on. But recent events suggest that we take another careful look at this chapter of Church history before turning the page.
During the past week, a German lawyer charged with investigating the abuse of minors in a famous Catholic boys’ choir in Bavaria revealed that two hundred and thirty-one children had been victimized over a period of decades. The attorney, Ulrich Weber, who was commissioned by the Diocese of Regensburg to conduct the inquiry, said that there were fifty credible cases of sexual abuse, along with a larger number of cases of other forms of physical abuse, from beatings to food deprivation.
The news received widespread attention not only because of its disturbing content but because the director of the Regensburg boys’ choir from 1964 to 1994 was Georg Ratzinger, the older brother of Joseph Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI. Joseph Ratzinger was the Archbishop of Munich from 1977 until 1981, when he went to head up the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which establishes theological orthodoxy and was also one of the branches of the Church that dealt with priestly sexual abuse.
The developments in Germany raised the question of what the two Ratzinger brothers knew about the abuse in the Regensburg choir. Most of the sexual abuse took place, apparently, at a boarding school for elementary-grade students connected to the choir. The chief culprit, according to Weber, was Johann Meier, the boarding school’s director from 1953 until 1992. The composer Franz Wittenbrink, a graduate of the school, told Der Spiegel magazine, in 2010, when the abuse scandal became public, that there was “a system of sadistic punishments connected to sexual pleasure.”


At that time, Georg Ratzinger, who was on the three-person supervisory board of the elementary school, acknowledged that some choirboys had complained about the punishments they received at the school. “But I did not have the feeling at the time that I should do something about it,” he told the Passauer Neue Presse, in 2010. “Had I known with what exaggerated fierceness he was acting, I would have said something.”

The Brothers Ratzinger

In fact, accusations of abuse surfaced and were investigated in 1987, but no one saw fit to remove Meier from his post until the year of his death. When asked at his press conference last week whether Georg Ratzinger had been aware of the abuse, Weber replied, “Based on my research, I must assume so.” He estimated that a third of the students in the choir had suffered some form of abuse. Georg Ratzinger has said that he routinely slapped choirboys when their performance was not up to snuff, standard treatment until Germany banned corporal punishment, in the early eighties. So far, the Regensburg diocese has offered compensation of twenty-five hundred euros for each victim.

Benedict and Regensberg Choir

In the early nineties, a monk who worked at the Vatican told me, “You wouldn’t believe the amounts of money the church is spending to settle these priestly sexual-abuse cases.” He was not exaggerating. By 1992, Catholic dioceses in the U.S. had paid out four hundred million dollars to settle hundreds of molestation cases. These financial settlements were reached largely to keep the victims quiet: in almost all cases, the documents were sealed and the victims signed a non-disclosure agreement. Given the enormous amounts of money involved, the men running the Vatican were well aware of the problem.
The basic outlines of the sex-abuse scandal were already evident that year when Jason Berry, an American journalist, published his first book, “Lead Us Not Into Temptation.” (While the “Spotlight” team at the Boston Globe is rightly getting its moment of glory, praise is also due to Berry, whose pioneering work on the subject, a decade earlier, was done with far less institutional support.) As Berry reported, Ray Mouton, a lawyer whom the Church hired in 1985 to defend a pedophile priest in Louisiana, warned that, if the Church did not adopt a policy for helping victims and removing pedophiles from the ministry, it could face a billion dollars in losses from financial settlements and damage awards in the next decade. It turned out that Mouton had actually underestimated the financial cost of the crisis. By 2006, the Church had spent $2.6 billion settling sexual-abuse cases, as Berry wrote in the 2010 edition of “Vows of Silence,” his second book on the pedophile crisis, which he co-authored with fellow-journalist Gerald Renner.

Most cases of abuse were handled (or not handled) by local bishops and archbishops, but some were adjudicated by Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The most prominent of these cases was that of Father Marcial Maciel, a favorite of Pope John Paul II and the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a powerful Mexican religious order that, at its pinnacle, included eight hundred priests, fifteen universities, and a hundred and fifty prep schools, as well as a lay movement with a reported seventy thousand followers.
In the seventies and eighties, former members of the Legionaries reported that, as young boys, they had been sexually abused by Maciel. As the Church later acknowledged, the complainants were highly credible and had no ulterior motives: they were not seeking monetary compensation or notoriety. They followed Church procedures by filing formal charges through ecclesiastical courts in Rome, but nothing was done. In fact, Pope John Paul II called on Maciel to accompany him on papal visits to Mexico in 1979, 1990, and 1993.

Maciel meeting JP11

When one of the former Legionaries expressed his frustration, in the lawsuit, about the Church’s inaction, Berry and Renner reported in their book, the Legionaries’ own canon lawyer, Martha Wegan, who made no secret that her first loyalty was to the Church, replied, “It is better for eight innocent men to suffer than for millions to lose their faith.”
Cardinal Ratzinger reopened the case against Father Maciel in 2004, and, when he became Pope, in 2006, he acknowledged the validity of the claims, forbidding Maciel to continue his ministry and limiting him to a “life of prayer and penitence.” The Vatican found Maciel guilty of “very serious and objectively immoral acts . . . confirmed by incontrovertible testimonies” that represent “true crimes and manifest a life without scruples or authentic religious sentiment.”
Though the sexual-abuse crisis reached its peak in the public sphere during Benedict XVI’s papacy, the single figure most responsible for ignoring this extraordinary accumulation of depravity is the sainted John Paul II. In the context of his predecessor’s deplorable neglect, Pope Benedict gets slightly higher marks than most. In 2001, he acted to give his office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, jurisdiction over all sexual-abuse cases, and soon he began to push the Maciel investigation, despite considerable Vatican opposition. After ascending the throne of St. Peter, he became the first Pope to kick predator priests out of the Church: in 2011 and 2012, the last two full years of his papacy, the Church defrocked three hundred and eighty-four offending priests.
That said, it was too little, too late. As the second-most-powerful man in John Paul II’s pontificate, Ratzinger had more ability to know and to act than almost anyone. The actions he finally did take were largely dictated by a series of embarrassing scandals: his move to take control of pedophilia cases in 2001 closely followed scandals in the U.S., Ireland, and Australia, and staggering financial settlements for American plaintiffs. The decision to reopen the case against Maciel would almost certainly not have happened without the courageous reporting of Berry and Renner. And the zero-tolerance policy that led to the systematic defrocking of abusive priests happened only after theannus horribilis of 2010, in which a new sexual-abuse scandal seemed to explode every week and loyal parishioners left the Church in droves.

Ratzinger understood better than most, if late, that priestly abuse was the negation of everything the Church was supposed to stand for. But, for much of his career, his focus and priorities were elsewhere. During most of his tenure, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was too busy disciplining anyone who dared step out of line with Church teachings on personal sexuality and family planning to bother with the thousands of priests molesting children. In 2009, a nun named Margaret McBride sat on the ethics committee of a Phoenix hospital that had to decide the case of a pregnant woman whose doctors believed that she (and her fetus) would die if they did not terminate her pregnancy.* 

Sister Margaret

The committee voted to allow an abortion, and the woman’s life was saved. Almost immediately, McBride’s bishop informed her of her excommunication. It took multiple decades and thousands of cases of predatory behavior to begin defrocking priests, but not much more than twenty-four hours to excommunicate a nun trying to save a human life. In 2011, also under Pope Benedict, the Vatican lifted its excommunication of McBride.

A reëxamination of the sexual-abuse scandal may help the Church reconsider the standoff between traditionalists and progressives during Francis’s papacy. The traditionalists, who oppose changes such as offering communion to remarried couples, bemoan the good old days when papal authority was unquestioned, civil authorities treated the Church with extreme deference, and parishioners obeyed without objection. They have forgotten that those good old days were also a time when children were slapped, beaten, and often sexually abused, and priests, bishops, parents, and police looked away.


  1. Do you know what is one of God's greatest gifts to humankind? A free press.

    Thank God for journalists like Stille and those others. Collectively, they are plucky David bringing down that revolting giant: Roman Catholic clericalism.

  2. It would seem that the church that gets attacked right, left and centre is the Roman Catholic church. There are hundreds of other churches that never get mentioned and that has got me thinking. Counterfeit Christianity is always safe because a wolf would never attack a painted sheep.

    1. 'The Church that gets attacked'? Don't be paranoid. These journalists are Catholic. Why would they be concerned with any church but their own? Your point is a red herring and shows that you know these journalists are correct.

      Shame on you for trying to distract attention from this shameful part of Catholic Church history!

  3. The McBride case is anything but an isolated situation. There are many similar instances.The stinking hypocrisy of senior figures in the Catholic Church all over the world who were prepared to acquiesce and cover up the abuse, molestation,rape and buggery of innocent children in order to preserve the so called good name of a rotten institution is now slowly being laid open for all humankind to see. Not a second before time!! Benedict seen the writing on the wall and got off his mark!

    1. MourneManMichael13 March 2016 at 01:41

      I don't know what the McBride case refers to. But I very much concur with the analysis of your third sentence.
      As for Anon @ 21:48, well maybe I'm too thick, but I just do not understand what this is about!

    2. Did you ever wonder why Matthew starts off with the genealogy of Jesus? Judah produced Perez and Zerah with his daughter in law Tamar that is incest. Then he mentions Boaz who was the son of Rahab the prostitute. David’s son Solomon was the result of his adultery with Bathsheba. Then you have Rehoboam his son who caused the schism had sacred prostitutes and idol worship in the Temple. Then you have Ahaz who like the pagan nations sacrificed his own son through fire. Then you have Manasseh who was even worse than Ahaz. What a wonderful ancestry there is in the genealogy of Jesus. Incest, prostitution, adultery, idol worship and Jesse didn’t include David as his legitimate son. David was the result of an incestuous relationship that Jesse had. The pattern of incest continues through David’s daughter also named Tamar who had been raped by her step-brother Amnon. God’s ways are not our ways. For over 2000 years He has used the Catholic Church and no matter how bad it becomes the gates of Hell will never prevail. You cannot destroy what God has instituted.

    3. Anonymous @ 10:23 doesn't quite get it: it isn't journalists, with their exposès of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up, that are damaging the Catholic Church: it's the whole morally rotten system of clericalism that is
      doing this. Are you really so misguidedly loyal? Even Pope Benedict (and he wasn't one for doing much to stop abusing priests) said that it was clerics
      who were bringing filth into the Church.

      You said that one "cannot destroy what God has instituted". Were you thinking of these journalists here? You probably were, which is the answer I'd expect from someone who has sold their heart and soul to an institution rather than to God.

  4. No I haven't sold my soul, it was purchased by the blood of the Lamb. I did not say that one"cannot destroy what God has instituted". Jesus said that, check out Matthew 16:18

    1. You've again missed the point: the issue is exposing clerical sexual abuse. This is a morally, personally and socially good thing. You (and others like you) are, incredibly, interpreting it as an attack on the Catholic Church, which
      is why you repeated those words by Christ.

      You have some serious maturing to do...and urgently need to control your paranoid imagination. No one is attacking the Church; instead, grave evil is being exposed by good journalist who deserve our gratitude, not your
      spiteful, and utterly misplaced, condemnation.

      Without these journalists, this wickedness against children by so-called 'men
      of God' would have remained hidden and scores of other children would have
      been endangered.

      Yes, you have sold your loyalty to these men and to the detriment of our children. Be ashamed!

    2. Sorry mate, I am not condemning anybody. The word of God is quite, everything that is hidden will be brought out into the open and everyone of us must give an account for what we have or have not done. Good on the journalists who can expose the rottenness within. Having said that, it is not our place to judge or condemn anyone no matter what they have or have not done because the amount we judge and condemn others we judge and condemn ourselves (Rom 2:1)The point I am trying to make is that if the Messiah can be born through a line that can include incest, adultery, prostitution, false worship and idolatry, then he can use a Church with all the same defects to bring about his purposes.