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News Analysis: Abuse report faults Munich leadership of Pope Benedict, Cardinal Marx

January 20, 2022

A long-awaited report by a leading German law firm has criticized Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI for his handling of sex-abuse cases while he was Archbishop of Munich. The same report also criticized the current leader of the Munich archdiocese, Cardinal Reinhard Marx.

While media attention has fastened on the charges against the former Pope, the report uncovers a pattern of episcopal negligence that dates back to long before the arrival of then-Archbishop Ratzinger, and—more remarkably—continued even as the abuse scandal erupted around the Catholic world.

The report by the firm of Westphfal Spilker Wastl, running to over 1,000 pages, represents the product of a two-year investigation into the handling of abuse complaints by the Munich archdiocese over a period of over 80 years. The report, which was commissioned by the German Church, found evidence of almost 500 cases of abuse, involving more than 250 priests or other archdiocesan officials.

Cardinal Marx responded to the report by saying that he was “shocked and ashamed” by the evidence of negligence “on an appalling scale” in the archdiocese. But the report should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the history of the worldwide sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. The same pattern of episcopal negligence and indifference has been exposed time and again, in reports that began with the explosion of the scandal in the US in 2002.

Pope-emeritus Benedict, who served as Archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982, stands accused of the same failings that apparently characterized most episcopal leadership during that period of time: neglecting to act on complaints of abuse. Presenting the report for the German law firm, Martin Pusch said that “we reached a consensus that there was a failure to act” in four cases.

The retired Pope, who is now 94, cooperated with the investigation, sending 82 pages of notes. He denied covering up abuse charges. In at least one case, the Munich archdiocese has confirmed that then-Cardinal Ratzinger was unaware that an accused priest had returned to ministry, since the vicar-general had taken full responsibility.

Cardinal Marx, who has been Archbishop of Munich since 2007, offered a similar explanation for the cases in which he had failed to take action, saying that he had not been properly informed. That excuse is less satisfactory today, coming after the worldwide explosion of the abuse scandal. Martin Pusch asked: “When, if not in the case of the sexual abuse of minors, is the classification of an issue as a ‘matter for the boss’ applicable?” He also pointed out that the Church’s new norms for the handling of abuse complaints “assign a central role to the diocesan bishop.”

Cardinal Marx has admitted that his handling of abuse cases was unsatisfactory, apologized, and last year offered his resignation. Pope Francis declined to accept the resignation, asking the German prelate to remain in place—not only as Archbishop of Munich but also as coordinator of the Vatican’s Council for the Economy and a member of the Pope’s top advisory board, the Council of Cardinals.

Cardinal Friedrich Wetter, who led the Munich archdiocese from 1982 (when Cardinal Ratzinger left) to 2007 (when Cardinal Marx was appointed) was also criticized in the Westphfal Spilker Wastl report, which found him deficient in his handling of 22 abuse complaints.

The Vatican has not formally responded to the German report, except to say that “appropriate attention should be paid to the document.”


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