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How Pope Benedict handled abuse: 2 revealing case studies

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 17, 2010

How has Pope Benedict XVI reacted to reports of pedophile priests? We now have two revealing case studies.

One case involves an otherwise ordinary parish priest who had a record of molesting children. The future Pope-- then Archbishop of Munich-- was never directly involved in his case, and appears to have known very little about him. The other involves one of the most prominent, influential priests in the Catholic Church: the head of a wealthy religious order, a man with powerful friends at the Vatican. The future Pope Benedict led the charge against him.

The first case is that of "Father H" in Munich. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger allowed an accused abuser to live in a local rectory, and when his subordinate allowed the accused priest to take up parish work, the cardinal evidently failed to notice the assignment.

But Father H was not a prominent priest. After his transfer from another diocese he apparently did nothing to attract attention during Cardinal Ratzinger's tenure in Munich. For all we know the future Pontiff might never have met him. Should he have been more attentive to the dangers posed by an abusive priest in his archdiocese? Probably.

The second case is that of the late Father Marcial Maciel, founder and head of the Legion of Christ. By the time Cardinal Ratzinger took up his position as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Father Maciel had already fended off one Vatican investigation. He had used his connections, and the wealth of the Legionaries, to curry favor with other important Vatican officials. In two eye-opening reports for the National Catholic Reporter, Jason Berry has detailed how Maciel steadily expanded his influence within the Roman Curia, especially the Secretariat of State.

But Cardinal Ratzinger wasn't buying. He refused gifts from the Legionaries. He pressed for a fresh investigation of the abuse charges that had been lodged against Father Maciel. At first pleas for a thorough inquiry were thwarted, but it is no coincidence that shortly after his election as Benedict XVI the case moved forward, and soon Maciel was permanently removed from active priestly ministry.

Father Maciel had enjoyed the protection of influential prelates. But Cardinal Ratzinger did not protect him. On the contrary, in this case, when the pursuit of a predator priest involved a long battle against entrenched interests at the Vatican, the future Pontiff took up the struggle. If there was ever a case when a cardinal would have been tempted to let an abusive priest escape punishment, this was it. Pope Benedict did not let Maciel escape.

So again, we have two test cases: one involving a priest that the future Pope barely knew, the other involving one of the world's most prominent clerics. In one case it would have been relatively easy for Cardinal Ratzinger to discipline the priest; in the other, the disciplinary process could only move forward if the cardinal was willing to pay a price. Maybe he should have been more vigilant in Munich, but later Pope Benedict took up the tough case. Now which case tell us more about the Pope's real attitude toward sex-abuse cases?

At a time when other bishops were denying the problem, Cardinal Ratzinger was speaking passionately about the to eliminate the "filth" from the priesthood. His track record confirms his determination. 

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Ben Dunlap - Apr. 22, 2010 8:43 PM ET USA

    AnnH's comment below presupposes that then-Cardinal Ratzinger had any authority whatsoever over Father H. The record is not clear, from what I've read, as to whether Father H was ever incardinated in the Munich archdiocese (and thus subject to Cdl. Ratzinger), or whether he was simply "visiting" a therapeutic institution within Munich's territorial boundaries.

  • Posted by: mclom - Apr. 21, 2010 10:16 AM ET USA

    Dear Mr Lawler, I AM surprised at you using a source from NCR, on a point of principle. I read them for 1st time two days ago, saw lots of dodgy characters' activities being advertised & advised some friends not to bother with the site. Am I being unreasonable?

  • Posted by: Contrary1995 - Apr. 20, 2010 9:42 AM ET USA

    The investigation into Father Maciel was re-opened in December of 2004: long before Benedict's election. John Paul the Great initiated the investigation likely at the urging of the then Cardinal Ratzinger.

  • Posted by: AnnH - Apr. 18, 2010 9:50 AM ET USA

    I'd like "Probably" changed to "Yes". He should have been more vigilant. I feel the media exaggerated his involvement, and I accept that the decision to transfer Fr H was made without his knowledge, but it *would* have been good if he had told his subordinate, in the middle of the thousand and one things he was attending to, "By the way, make sure Fr H isn't returned to ministry." Apart from that, I agree with this article, and respect the Pope for his later actions (and guts) dealing with Fr M.

  • Posted by: benroodhouse9184 - Apr. 17, 2010 1:33 PM ET USA

    I'm a little disappointed in seeing any credence given to the National Catholic Reporter, after all this very website rated them as "dangerous" in their lack of fidelity to the Church. However, you do make a good point about our Holy Father's actions against an accused abuser. I think it's all the more powerful when you consider the good things and the support that Benedict has directed to the Legion of Christ in general.