Before he led the Roman Catholic Church as Benedict XVI, and before he towered over the Church as a powerful cardinal and the Vatican’s chief doctrinal watchdog, Joseph Ratzinger, Archbishop of Munich, attended a meeting in 1980 about a priest in Northwest Germany accused of child abuse.
Exactly what happened during the encounter is unclear – but then the priest was transferred and moved across Bavaria to various parishes over the next twelve years before ending up in the small village of Garching an der Alz, where he sexually assaulted Andreas Perr abused. then 12.
“It feels so heavy,” Mr Perr said Tuesday as he puffed cigarettes outside the house where he was harassed, just a stone’s throw from the white steeple of the village church. He said his abuse had led him down a road marred by drugs and prison Archbishop Ratzinger had risen through the ranks of the Church. Speaking of retired Pope Benedict XVI, who died Saturday, he added, “to think about the power one person could have over your life.”
A report last year commissioned by the Catholic Church in Munich accused Benedict of mishandling cases of sexual abuse by priests. Benedict apologized for all “serious mistakes” but denied any wrongdoing.
The scourge of child sexual abuse in the Church haunted Benedict from the beginning of his rise in the hierarchy to his final year as a frail, retired pope, when the Munich researchers added one final complication to a deeply contradictory legacy.
To followers, he is the leader who first encountered victims and—more than anyone before him—forced the Church to finally face its demons, change its laws, and get rid of hundreds of abusive priests. He raised the age of consent and included vulnerable adults in laws that protected minors. He allowed the statute of limitations on sexual abuse to be lifted.
According to critics, he protected the institution over the victims in its flock, held no bishop responsible for protecting abusers, and failed to back up his words with actions. He preferred to keep discipline in house and never demanded that matters be reported to civil authorities.
“We should be grateful to Benedict XVI for what he has done to take the fight against abuse in the Church to a new level by introducing stricter procedures and new laws,” said Rev. Hans Zollner, one of the top Vatican experts on the subject. protection of minors and in sexual abuse. “He was the first pope to meet victims of abuse. At the same time, given the report that during his years as Archbishop of Munich he paid insufficient attention to victims of abuse and held perpetrators accountable, we cannot ignore the fact that victims and others are hurting.”
Mr. Perr, now 38, is still trying to build a life after what the church did to him. He is no longer a member of the Catholic Church.
As Archbishop Ratzinger rose to greater heights, Mr. Perr into an ever deeper abyss. His mother refused to believe him, and he fled home and became a heroine on heavy drugs and lived on the streets.
“When it happened, I started having nightmares,” he said. “That’s why I started using drugs. I wanted to stop dreaming, stop feeling guilty and disgusting. I just didn’t want to feel anything anymore.”
Over the years, Mr. Perr ended up in prison twice and was only paroled last year.
That was when he found criminal defense attorney Andreas Schulz, after learning that Ms. Schulz was representing other victims of abuse from the same priest. Together they decided to aim higher: they would file a civil lawsuit, not just against accused the priest of molesting him and several boys in Garching, as well as the Archdiocese of Munich and Joseph Ratzinger, the archbishop at the time.
Before Benedict died, the pope emeritus hired a major international law firm and said he intended to defend himself in a trial that would begin this year. Now Mr. Schulz and his client intend to continue the case even after his death, and they still want to hold Benedict XVI, or the heir to his estate, accountable.
Mr Schulz said it could even be Benedict’s successor, Pope Francis, who inherits the business should he become Benedict’s heir. The lawyer argued that the church should accept the trial as an opportunity to finally clear up the complicated history Benedict XVI left behind.
“His theological achievements are one side of his legacy,” Mr. Schulz said. “But there are shadows hanging over him, and those shadows can now only be removed if the right thing is done and accountable. That is something only Pope Francis can do now, and that is what our process strives for: people want transparency, they want accountability, they want compensation.”
Bills like Mr. Perr’s have become painfully familiar in the church over the past few decades. The exposure of systematic abuses has eroded dioceses and displaced believers in countries around the world.
In the United States, a scandal that erupted in Boston has shaken almost every part of the country. The Church in Ireland, once a fortress for Catholicism, was so decimated by abuse scandals that in 2010 Benedict wrote the first pastoral letter from a pope about abuse. “You have suffered greatly and I am truly sorry,” he wrote. A 2021 report in France claimed that hundreds of thousands of children there had been abused by the church.
Church leaders, who once viewed the crisis as an invention of liberals and lawyers, or as a problem of Anglophone countries drummed up by anti-Catholic news media, now recognize it is everywhere, and Francis, after his own missteps, introduced rules to keep the hierarchy more responsible.
But Benedict’s supporters, and even his critics, recognize that Francis built on Benedict’s reforms. Before the deluge that engulfed the church, suitcases trickled in in the 1980s—often from English-speaking countries—and fell on his desk at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
In 1988, he urged the Vatican’s canon law department — which required lengthy ecclesiastical trials to denounce allegations — to give him free rein to expedite offending priests. It refused, arguing that such a move would deprive priests of due process, and as a result bishops sought to heal them with prayer and therapy or simply moved abusers to other parishes, where they preyed on more children.
But Cardinal Ratzinger’s office also did not intervene in flagrant cases. In the 1990s, it stopped a secret trial of an American priest who had molested as many as 200 deaf boys and wrote to the cardinal that the priest had already repented. He was never written out.
In 2001, Cardinal Ratzinger persuaded Pope John Paul II to let him try to get the problem under control. He drafted a church law requiring bishops to forward all credible allegations of abuse to the Vatican, where his office was made responsible for the matters.
He supported US bishops who attempted a “zero tolerance” policy that expelled priests guilty of a single episode of sexual abuse. . When John Paul reached the end of his pontificate in 2004, Cardinal Ratzinger ordered a review of pending cases in his department.
In 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote for the Via Crucis procession on Good Friday at Rome’s Colosseum: “What filth there is in the Church, especially among those who, in the priesthood, are supposed to belong fully” to Christ.
When he became pope, he disciplined—and eventually fired—Reverend Marcial Maciel Degollado, a serial abuser and the Mexican founder of the religious order the Legionnaires of Christ. A prodigious fundraiser, Father Maciel had won the loyalty of Pope John Paul II and those closest to him, who for years had blocked Benedict’s attempts to investigate him.
“The issue is very mixed and complex,” said Marie Collins, an Irish abuse survivor who in 2017 resigned in frustration from a Vatican commission set up by Francis to protect minors. She said Benedict’s reading of so many cases as head of the doctrinal congregation made him “understand the magnitude of the problem when he became pope,” and that he introduced new procedures against sexual abuse.
Ms. Collins said it was “unfair to make too much” of the mistakes he made in handling matters during his own personal ministry when he was bishop in Germany, but that Benedict, as pope, “did not do enough in -work deeply on the problem or pursue it fully.
For many, he didn’t go far enough.
Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a victim advocacy and research group, said in a statement on the day of Benedict’s death that he “left hundreds of guilty bishops in power and a culture of secrecy intact.”
Tuesday night in Munich Cathedral Benedict led as bishop 40 years ago, current archbishop, Reinhard Marx, began a Mass in Benedict’s honor by inviting everyone to pray, including “those who have experienced abuse and suffering in the space of the Church. All who have received good gifts from Joseph Ratzinger. And all those who now, in this hour, trust that God’s goodness and mercy will heal all.”
Jason Horowitz reported from Rome, and Eric Solomon from Munich and Garching an der Alz, Germany. Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting from Rome, and Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin.