Full Text: EWTN’s Exclusive Interview with Archbishop Gänswein

Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the personal secretary of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, spoke in extensive detail about the controversy surrounding then-Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger’s handling of clerical sexual abuse cases while archbishop of Munich and Friesing.

Archbishop Georg Gänswein, personal secretary of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, speaks to EWTN Rome Bureau Chief Andreas Thonhauser.
Archbishop Georg Gänswein, personal secretary of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, speaks to EWTN Rome Bureau Chief Andreas Thonhauser. (photo: EWTN)

Editor’s Note: During a Feb. 11 interview in Rome, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the personal secretary of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, spoke in extensive detail about the controversy surrounding then-Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger’s handling of clerical sexual abuse cases while archbishop of Munich and Friesing. The on-camera interview was conducted in German by EWTN Rome Bureau Chief Andreas Thonhauser. The English translation appears below. EWTN will broadcast the full interview on Feb. 14 at 6:30 p.m. EST. Minor editing changes were made for clarity.

Excellency, you are the private secretary of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI. How is he doing? How did he receive the abuse report and what does he think of the media storm accompanying it? 

This morning we celebrated Mass together, like every day. Then we prayed Lauds and had breakfast. And then he went about his business, and I am here now. He is doing well, the pressure was lifted, thank God, after his letter had been published together with the fact check. But I might say, he was always calm and full of trust in God. Of course, it's one thing to resist pressure, and quite another to withstand pressure internally. But, thank God, he has managed to do so, he is calm and, above all, he has never lost his sense of humor.

In his most recent letter, Benedict XVI apologized to the victims of sexual abuse but also rejected all allegations. How do these go together?

You know the story; a mistake was made after the publication of the Munich report. But it was not a mistake on Pope Benedict’s part, as he himself indicated in his letter. The fact check explains how it happened. It was an oversight that unfortunately happened. It should not have happened. But it did happen.

I can still remember when we reviewed the statement he sent to the law firm, during the last “question and answer” session, he said: “That meeting, the famous one, on Jan. 15, 1980, I don't remember. But if it says that I was absent, then this absence is proven — or was proven back then — because of a document of the meeting. And that’s where the mistake happened. “So if it says I was absent, I accept it. I don’t remember.” I said: “Holy Father, it’s in the digital files we just checked, so we can assume that it is true.” It was not checked again, not at all, until the end. It only came up again when the report was presented and one of the experts said: We have the proof here, Benedict was present and not absent. I was shocked, and the others were shocked, too. And then we checked again. And indeed, there had been a mix-up. I told Pope Benedict, and he said: “We have to say immediately that it was a mistake on our part.” It was not intentional, so it was not a lie — lies happen on purpose; it was a mistake. “We have to say this as soon as possible,” he insisted. “Prepare a press release, discuss it with the State Secretariat and then move on.” 

And thus, in the afternoon of Jan. 24, I handed out a press release and announced that there will be a statement in which Pope Benedict will personally comment on this matter. And then, there was his statement: He said, “I will write a personal letter. But there should also be an answer to the charges against me, and not only to the charges, but also to the insinuations, based on the file material. Thus, there shall be a personal letter from me, and a second part, an appendix or — as we call it in German — a ‘fact check.’” He wrote the letter, and the advisers — whom we know by name now, who also helped him with the statement — did their part and said how this error came about, and also who is to blame or who is responsible for it. 

About this mistake. The abuse report had more than 1,000 pages. Pope Benedict received a catalog of questions before this report was published, including thousands of pages of documents. They had to be reviewed, and then, based on this work, he wrote an 82-page response. In this document, there was an error on whether Benedict participated in a meeting or not. However, the abuse cases were not even discussed in this meeting and this is documented. Can you discuss this further?

Allow me to give you some background. Pope Benedict was asked whether he would be willing to participate in this report. He said: “I have nothing to hide, I'll gladly do it.” He then received about 20 pages of questions and was informed that he would, of course, have the possibility to consult the documentation on the basis of which the questions had been compiled. Pope Benedict answered that, because of his age, he would not be able to travel to Munich, being thus not in a position to go to the Archbishop's Ordinariate in order to consult the archive files. It was then suggested that this could also be done digitally. But since Pope Benedict is not familiar with the new computer world, the digital world, I suggested he commission a professor, Professor Mückl from Rome, as has now been made known, whom I know very well and appreciate: He is a lawyer and a canonist and a very good theologian. He also had to sign a declaration of confidentiality for the diocese and the law firm, stating that he will accept the task and, of course, remain silent. That’s what he did, and then he was presented with 8,000 pages of digital records. He couldn’t copy and paste. So he had to do what he did when he was a student: He had to take notes. And that’s an incredible mass of information.

How much time did he have? Not something like three months?

No, no, in fact, the information about the digital format was not given right from the start, but only upon request. And he worked his way through it. And then, of course, everything was put in a logical sequence with regard to the questions. Then the consultants or the staff drew up a first draft. And Benedict had a look at it. And in this first draft, the confusion, the mistake, was already there. No one noted the mistake, none of the four collaborators, nor me nor Pope Benedict. It was as I said before: When he asked me: “Is it true that I was not present?” [I responded] “Yes, that’s what it says, that’s what the files say.” And that was the mistake.

Well, then things went ahead. The statement was mailed, the 82 pages written by the consultants, which Benedict regularly proofread, making also some changes and improving things. And in the end, it was 82 pages. And then there was criticism: “It’s too juridical, not Benedict's voice at all,” they said. But to legal questions, which are often quite complicated and written in a somewhat “wavy” language — if I might put it like that — one can only answer using the same language.

What happened next?

The last date for mailing the pages was fixed on Dec. 15, the deadline, so to speak. Then the law firm announced in a press release that it would be published in the third week of January. That’s all we heard, all we knew. We were told that we would be able to download everything after the presentation of the report, the PDF file, and that we could then read everything. And here we are not talking about 1,000, but almost 2,000 pages! The report had 1,983 pages, including Benedict’s statement and the statement of the other cardinals who responded. Imagine that huge amount of paperwork: 2,000 pages, and being expected to answer straight away! That was simply impossible. A week later, Cardinal Marx announced that a press conference would be held in Munich. And Pope Benedict said: “I have to read this first, I want to read this first. And I will also ask the staff to read it. And then I will answer.” You have to admit to anyone, a man of any age, that this takes time.

Almost 500 cases were documented in this report. Pope Benedict has been faulted for mishandling four cases. … The pope’s letter was recently published. It was a very personal letter and was accompanied also by a more legal response rebutting the criticisms. But the letter is emotional in tone. The pope emeritus apologizes to all victims on behalf of the Church. Many media representatives interpreted it as if he were specifically apologizing for concrete cases. But that was not the case?

Before I answer your question, I would like to come back to the infamous meeting. The protocol of the meeting reads: “Present, archbishop Cardinal Ratzinger”; the then-Vicar General was not present. He was absent. The personnel responsible had received a request from a diocese in Germany, asking whether a priest coming to Munich for a certain period of time for treatment would be allowed to stay in a rectory in Munich. That was the subject of the meeting. The request made by the diocese was accepted. “We will name a priest or a parish priest in whose rectory he can stay,” it was said. It was not about content at all. That is, it was only about whether this request should be accepted or not. And Cardinal Ratzinger, who was present, naturally agreed: Of course, if we can help, we will help. What later happened, a cooperation here, a cooperation there, was beyond his knowledge. At the time, that was not discussed at all. Also, the reason for the therapy, that it was possibly a pedophile priest, was never mentioned. There's no mention of that in the protocol. The claim that he knew about it, that he protected him and covered it up, is simply a lie. And I must say quite frankly: That is an insinuation. It is simply not true. You have to know the facts as they are, and also accept the facts as they are. And then I can interpret them. But I can’t put the cart before the horse. I simply can’t. That is an insinuation. And that ultimately takes away the moral credibility of Pope Benedict, and then he can no longer defend himself.

But let me answer the question you asked me before: You are absolutely right: when he wrote the letter, Benedict said: “It should be a very personal letter. And that’s why there is this distinction between my letter and the fact check. So that people can see that this is my letter, the letter I wrote, and the fact check, which is the work of the four collaborators, which I know and which I approve of.” But this letter is something he wrote, if you will, in the presence of God. The last paragraph is perhaps the key to it all. He says: “Quite soon, I shall find myself before the final judge of my life,” before a gracious judge.

In fact, it was not the first time he apologized to victims of abuse. I remember very well, and this is also mentioned in the letter, that, during his travels as pope, he often met people who had been sexually abused by priests. These meetings were very emotional, always in the chapel, without the press, always starting in the chapel with a short prayer, and then the meeting. And I could see afterwards what effects these encounters had. And this is simply reporting facts. Many of these victims testified afterwards, either on the radio or on TV, how this encounter had done them good and how all the pressure, the burden, had been alleviated. Benedict always said: Every victim of abuse is one too much; every case of abuse is one too much, and in the end it cannot be repaired. The only thing that can help is the plea for forgiveness and also the plea, so to speak, to place these people under the protection of God.

You have accompanied him for many years. As someone who worked with him, who supported him, has his attitude towards the issue of abuse changed, or has it always been as we experience it now in the letter? 

I had been working in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1996, that is, from 1996 as a staff member and then, from 2003, as his personal secretary. And I have seen from the very beginning what his attitude was. It’s exactly the same as today, the same as when he was pope, it never changed. On the contrary, he was convinced from the very beginning that there’s a need for transparency, a need for clarity, that we must call things by their proper name, and that we mustn’t cover anything up. And he did this together with John Paul II, trying to let actions follow his convictions. In other words: What must the Vatican, what must the Church, do in order to actually reach this goal? There was a mindset change, which, of course, had to be followed by a change on a legal level, meaning that one actually had an instrument to do something about it. Subsequently, John Paul II transformed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith into a court, if I may put it that way, bestowing the necessary competence on it. This competence was previously bestowed on another Congregation. He took it away from this Congregation and gave it to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. And since then, the repair process, the clarification, has gone ahead.

Did Benedict, at that time still Cardinal Ratzinger, also play a decisive role in dealing with cases of abuse in the Church? 

He did not only play a decisive role, he was the decisive figure, the decisive man; the one who not only suggested transparency, but also took concrete steps towards transparency. One can say, he is the "father of transparency,” and thus he also managed to convince Pope John Paul II.

Was it easy for him, or did he have to fight? Were his efforts of reform welcomed with open arms?

I wouldn’t want to spill the beans, but there was indeed internal resistance. And this resistance was shown very clearly. But he was always convinced that this resistance can and must be overcome with the help of Pope John Paul II, and so it has been. Thank God! If you consult the Congregation’s archives, you can see a series of important documents that lead, step by step, like a mosaic, to this exact goal. And it continued: As pope, of course, he continued to draw this line on a higher and more effective level. And this is the line which also Pope Francis continues.

Personally, I have read and heard very little about these facts in the last few days and weeks in the media. Do you have the feeling after the letter, even after this legal clarification, that the faithful around the world understood that all allegations have been cleared up? How do you see it? 

If I could judge that, I would feel much better. I don’t know for sure. I can only say that there have been, and there are, very different media reactions, differing also from country to country. When I look at Germany, for example, I have to say that people have tried — and here I generalize a bit — to accuse the pope of something. I could observe a great, sometimes even immoderate bias against his person, paired with a no less immoderate ignorance of the facts. Either you don’t know them or you don’t want to take them seriously because it might not correspond to the narrative that has been created. And it’s obvious that against this man, be it Cardinal Ratzinger as prefect, be it Pope Benedict XVI, certain things that simply are not true are kept alive. That is to say, there is this wish to come down hard on him.

And that is simply shocking for me. The man who, in this important question — the whole question of abuse and pedophilia — has suggested and then implemented the decisive instruments to help, whether as a prefect, or as pope, is being accused of something that contradicts 25 years of his work. So, what I perceive, again and again, is ignorance on the one hand, and an excessive overvaluation of one’s own opinion on the other. And that is something that has nothing to do with truthful coverage. I can only hope that the people who read and have read the letter, people who know Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict, will not let themselves be influenced or convinced by such biased judgments. That’s my hope.

We can probably already say that the reputation of Benedict XVI has suffered greatly from this abuse report and the wrongly held suspicions. But why did this happen now? And maybe we can speculate a little: Does this report also have a political dimension, especially when we think of the situation of the Church in Germany right now?

When the report was commissioned two years ago, if I remember correctly, it was supposed to be published last year. It was then postponed for various reasons. The last time it was postponed was, I think, from November to January. We can speculate about the extent to which this is connected temporally or causally with what you have mentioned, that is — to name it clearly — the Synodal Way in Germany and other movements. But one thing is clear: Certain goals that the Synodal Way is aiming at are something for which the person and the work of Benedict stand in the way. And there is this great, great danger that everything that has to do with pedophilia and abuse is now taken monocausally, so to speak, in order to open this Way first and then go down that road. Last week we saw what texts were passed, and where this is supposed to lead.

We are talking about the Church’s moral teachings. Participants in the Synodal Way in Germany have voted on issues such as sexuality, marriage, priesthood, and rejected the Church’s position.

Well, I mean, the Synodal Way is an event that, theologically or ecclesiastically speaking, does not correspond to a synod. It's an event that can be held, and they can also produce texts. But these texts are not binding in any way, and certainly not for the life of the Church. We will see to what extent the results of these texts can be fruitful  — or not  — for the process of the world Synod. I am convinced that they will not be fruitful. If I want a different Church that is no longer based on revelation, so to speak, if I want a different structure of the Church that is no longer sacramental but pseudo-democratic, then I must also see that this has nothing to do with Catholic understanding, with Catholic ecclesiology, with the Catholic understanding of the Church. 

The report was also used to justify the Synodal Way in Germany. It was presented as the response to reports of abuse. Would it not be fair to say that there is a political, even an ideological agenda being pursued here, and are abuse survivors being taken advantage of?

That is also my conviction. It’s always said that the victims of abuse are the focus. And that is absolutely right. There is, though, also the concept of the “abuse of abuse.” And that is precisely the danger that lies herein. We must not forget that whenever one tries to manipulate something or someone, they do nothing else than trying to reach a goal by hiding it behind another reality, so to speak, until one thinks to have reached the goal.

But I can tell you in all honesty that I am optimistic. The advantage of living here in Rome is that you come into contact with so many different nations, so many different continents. And some people tell me: We cannot or do no longer understand what's happening in your country. If in Germany, to put it generally, those who met in Frankfurt and who now have their texts, think that they have to teach Rome, that their important voice has to be heard in Rome in order to help Rome, so to speak, then they are welcome to do so. I would be more cautious though, I would be a little less — and now I'm saying it brutally — complacent, I would shift down a bit, also in how I present myself to the public.

In his letter, Benedict also mentions that Pope Francis expressed his support for the pope emeritus. How is he supporting him?

He was very clear. He called and assured him of his solidarity, his absolute trust, his brotherly trust and his prayer. He also said that he cannot understand why they come down so hard on him. When Pope Benedict wrote his letter, he sent it to Pope Francis, before it was published, of course. He thanked him for the phone call, and asked him if it was OK. Two days later a beautiful letter of Pope Francis to Pope Benedict arrived  — a letter, in which he assured him once again and with really touching words of his support, his solidarity and his support, telling him that he had his back. I have been asked if it is not possible to publish this letter. It’s a letter Pope Francis wrote to Benedict, and as such it should remain confidential and private. But one is allowed to talk about it.

Benedict XVI mentioned in his letter that he is now at the end of his long life, it almost sounded like a farewell letter. How will we remember him? What will his legacy be?

Some commentators have said that this letter is a sort of spiritual testament. And I think I agree. In a certain way, this letter is a spiritual testament, because he wrote it before the face of God, as a man of faith, a man who — as we know  — wanted to include in his episcopal coat of arms a word from the Letter of John: "Cooperatores Veritatis,” co-workers of the truth. This was, so to speak, the red thread which runs through his whole life — his scientific, personal, but also his priestly and papal life. And he is deeply committed to this motto. He did everything to live accordingly: also and especially with regard to truthfulness.

I am convinced that once these storms have passed and some of the things he was accused of simply “rot off” — to put it crudely — one will see that the clarity of his thought, the clarity of his work, the things he did, shine brightly and are a great treasure for the Church: for those who believe, for the faithful, a treasure which can bear many fruits.

Excellency, thank you very much for this conversation.

Thank you for having me.