The Abuse of Abuse

EDITORIAL: The harshness of the attacks that were directed at Benedict XVI following the report’s publication is not justified by the actual evidence in the report, and seem strangely timed considering the recent German Synodal Way.

The towers of the Cathedral of Our Dear Lady are seen at night in Munich, Germany.
The towers of the Cathedral of Our Dear Lady are seen at night in Munich, Germany. (photo: Michael Thaler / Shutterstock)

Clergy sexual abuse of minors is an appalling crime. It’s a scandal so grave that it has completely undermined the trust of many of the faithful in their Catholic leaders. It has also profoundly injured the Church’s capacity to undertake its fundamental evangelical mission of the salvation of souls.

That’s why it’s so disturbing to see this issue cynically commandeered by some progressive Catholics. The Church must continue to strive for authentic solutions to combat sexual abuse, support the victims of abuse, punish sexual abusers, and learn from prior mistakes. Instead, these Catholics exploit it as an instrument to advance agendas that contradict settled Church teachings — as in the case of the doctrinal dissent that currently is being promoted openly by the German Church’s highly problematic “Synodal Way.” 

Equally disturbing is the willingness of these Catholics to misuse the abuse scandal to disparage certain Church leaders, more than others who are viewed more favorably because of their particular worldviews. 

The most glaring example is the criticism directed at Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI — by some German Church officials and from many media outlets — to the German law firm Westpfahl Spilker’s report released last month after investigating the handling of sexual abuse cases by the Archdiocese of Munich. Their report concluded that Benedict XVI “can be accused of misconduct” for his handling of four cases in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising between 1977 and 1982, when he was serving there as its archbishop. 

In a recent EWTN News interview defending Benedict XVI, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the former pope’s longtime personal secretary, referenced a telling phrase that some German Catholics have coined to describe what’s in play when the sexual-abuse issue is hijacked to effect wide doctrinal changes and to denigrate Church leaders whose viewpoints don’t conform with these progressive agendas: They accurately describe it as the “abuse of abuse.”

As Archbishop Gänswein also pointed out, the harshness of the attacks that were directed at Benedict following the report’s publication is not justified by the actual evidence in the report, in terms of his limited culpability for mishandling abuse. 

Correcting the record is of little help, however, in terms of mitigating the harm that has been caused via these widespread overstatements of the report’s findings. 

Accurate facts don’t seem to matter to those who would “abuse the abuse” to advance their doctrinal agenda any more than accuracy mattered when some within the Church in Germany carried out a similar campaign of exaggeration against Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne in the wake of that archdiocese’s historical investigation of the handling of clerical sexual abuse. By contrast, figures like Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Munich’s current archbishop, have been spared from similar harsh reactions from progressives regarding the extent of their own documented involvement in cases of clerical abuse that were mishandled.

This starkly disparate treatment seems disconnected from how relatively well or poorly these German bishops have overseen their diocesan clerical sexual-abuse files. 

Rather, it seems directly connected to where they are judged to be situated, in terms of their opposition to or support for the potentially schismatic agendas that Germany’s “Synodal Way” is now in the process of formally endorsing

It also should be noted that, even though the Synodal Way’s backers insist their process was initiated specifically to find new avenues to address sexual abuse and restore confidence in the Church, its leading priorities — such as women’s ordination, approval of homosexuality and the end to mandatory celibacy for priests — were perched atop the progressive wish list for decades before anyone claimed they might somehow serve as the corrective for abuse.

There is growing pushback against these misrepresentations. 

In comments to the Register, German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, delivered a powerful rebuke of the “personal attacks and defamation” leveled by the dissenting German Church leaders, and he urged Pope Francis and the “college of cardinals” to rein in the wayward “Synodal Way.” 

For its part, the Vatican has publicly defended Benedict’s record as a proven leader in the fight against abuse, and Archbishop Gänswein disclosed in his EWTN interview that the Holy Father called the pope emeritus to express consternation about the claims against him and afterward penned a moving personal letter of support. 

To reiterate what was stated at the outset of this commentary: Clerical sexual abuse of minors is an appalling crime that requires vigilance and ongoing reform. 

Recognizing the ideological character of the invective that has been directed at Benedict after the release of the Munich investigation’s findings in no way minimizes the travail that clergy abuse and its cover-up caused to the children who were victimized. 

And with the clarity of hindsight, it’s surely the case that Benedict, like nearly all of the Church leaders of his generation, could and should have done more to address clergy sexual abuse during his time as archbishop of Munich and afterward.

Indeed, this has been Benedict’s personal focus even now. 

While an appendix to Benedict’s letter of response to the Munich report rebutted investigators’ conclusions about his actions and his culpability, the pope emeritus centered his own remarks on his sorrow and shame as a Church leader for the profound and ineradicable harm that has resulted from sexual abuse and for not striving even more strongly than he did to purge this profound evil from the life of the Church. “In all my meetings, especially during my many Apostolic Journeys, with victims of sexual abuse by priests, I have seen at first hand the effects of a most grievous fault,” he lamented. 

“And I have come to understand that we ourselves are drawn into this grievous fault whenever we neglect it or fail to confront it with the necessary decisiveness and responsibility, as too often happened and continues to happen. As in those meetings, once again I can only express to all the victims of sexual abuse my profound shame, my deep sorrow and my heartfelt request for forgiveness.”

A spiritual and practical mea culpa over the scandal of clerical sexual abuse must guide continued reforms within the Church, not a thinly veiled spirit of dissent set on dismantling fundamental beliefs of our Catholic faith.

Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, Archbishop of Luxembourg, offers Mass at the International Eucharistic Congress Sept. 15 in Budapest.

Edward Pentin on Benedict XVI and Jonathan Liedl on Cardinal Hollerich (Feb. 12)

The Church in German was the focus of many Catholic news headlines this week as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI responded to a report that faulted his handling of sexual abuse cases when he led the Archdiocese of Munich. Register reporter Edward Pentin brings us the story from Rome. Then we turn to another controversy that erupted in a German news interview with Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, relator general of the Synod on Synodality, that seems to undermine the integrity of Catholic doctrine. Register senior editor Jonathan Liedl brings us analysis of that story.