Benedict and Clergy Sexual Abuse: The Leader Who Said ‘No More’

While debate continues about whether he should have done even more as pope to address this scourge, knowledgeable observers agree he initiated a decisive change in how the Church deals with the issue.

VISITATION ORDERED. Pope Benedict XVI arrives for his general audience at the Vatican April 1, 2009. The day before, the Holy Father ordered an apostolic visitation of the Legion of Christ after allegations that founder Father Marcial Maciel secretly fathered a child as well as abused seminarians. Three years earlier, Benedict ordered Father Maciel to 'a reserved life of penitence and prayer.' Vincenzo Pinto/AFP via Getty Images
VISITATION ORDERED. Pope Benedict XVI arrives for his general audience at the Vatican April 1, 2009. The day before, the Holy Father ordered an apostolic visitation of the Legion of Christ after allegations that founder Father Marcial Maciel secretly fathered a child as well as abused seminarians. Three years earlier, Benedict ordered Father Maciel to 'a reserved life of penitence and prayer.' Vincenzo Pinto/AFP via Getty Images (photo: Vincenzo Pinto / AFP/Getty)

Even though nearly a decade has passed since Pope Benedict XVI resigned, his death has unleashed yet another scrutiny of his handling of the Church’s sexual-abuse crisis. 

The latest assessments echo those of 2013 when some reports said his legacy had been marred by the abuse scandal and even that he had been complicit in it. At the same time, other observers credited him with aggressively dealing with a problem that had clearly predated his election to the papacy.

Msgr. Robert Oliver, a canon-law expert with 20 years of experience in working with victims and dealing with abuse cases, sees this latest rehashing as a sign.

“More time is clearly needed for us to gain true perspective and understanding,” he told the Register, “especially in an area with such raw, painful emotions and disappointments and as yet unrealized hopes.”

Msgr. Oliver, who previously has served as promoter of justice for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and secretary of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, said as the Church continues to grapple with the scourge of sexual abuse, many will look at Pope Benedict’s legacy and conclude he did not do nearly enough.

He added, “And, as negligence and the abuse of adults were recognized as part of this crisis, Pope Benedict’s legacy has been increasingly challenged.” 

Amid this, he said, others will want to move on from the discussion. But still others will choose to emphasize that Pope Benedict was among the first major Church leaders to bring God’s love directly to abuse victims, that he was a prime mover in radically changing the Church’s response to the grave crimes of sexual abuse and that he has inspired generations of Catholics to join the fight against abuse. 

“Looking through these lenses, they see ‘success’ in the midst of a most challenging time, judging ‘great progress’ in responding to crimes that no one is able to solve or eradicate,” Msgr. Oliver told the Register. 

 


Cardinal O’Malley’s Perspective

Indeed, in his statement on Pope Benedict’s Dec. 31 passing, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston referred in particular to the late Pope’s meetings with clergy abuse survivors. 

Cardinal O’Malley, who has served as president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors since that Vatican office was created by Pope Francis in 2014, said accompanying some of these survivors to a meeting with Pope Benedict in Washington during his 2008 visit to the United States was moving. 

“It was a great privilege for me to be present at this meeting,” he said, “as the Holy Father, in very personal ways, demonstrated his deep pastoral care for the survivors.” 

Cardinal O’Malley said Pope Benedict recognized the pain experienced by survivors and all those affected by the abuse crisis. “He was then, and at all times remained, committed to the Church supporting their journey towards healing and doing all that was possible to ensure the protection of children, young people and vulnerable adults.” 

Additionally, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, former promoter of justice for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, defended the late Pope’s handling of the sexual-abuse scandal, citing the work he did as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger while heading the CDF and later as pope to improve the way abuse cases were handled by the Vatican.

“The review of hundreds of cases of sexual misconduct against minors by clergy provided Cardinal Ratzinger with a deeper insight into the dark face of certain aspects of the ministry and he presented numerous egregious cases directly to the Holy Father for ex officio [by virtue of his office] dismissal from the clerical state,” Archbishop Scicluna said in a statement provided to the Register.

Archbishop Scicluna said that after he was elected to the papacy, Pope Benedict ensured that the CDF’s work not only would continue but be supported, adding that he would review egregious cases presented to him by the CDF on a weekly basis. The archbishop also cited Pope Benedict’s meetings with victims on his pastoral trips and his March 2010 “Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland,” which he said remains a seminal reference text. 

 


Father Maciel’s Case

Pope Benedict has been praised, even by his critics, for addressing the case of Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ, shortly after his election in 2005. 

L. Martin Nussbaum, a Colorado Springs attorney whose firm, Nussbaum Speir Gleason, has dealt with hundreds of cases on behalf of more than a dozen dioceses, said in suspending Father Maciel from the public practice of his priesthood, ordering him into seclusion and starting an apostolic visitation into the Legion, Pope Benedict confronted a powerful political force in the Church that had been willing to look the other way.

Although he would not characterize Pope Benedict’s handling of the sexual abuse scandal as exemplary or exceptional, Father John Beal, professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America, acknowledged, “Finally cracking down on Maciel was an accomplishment.” In that and other areas, Father Beal said, “He comes across much better than his predecessor, John Paul II.” 

In addition, Father Beal continued, “Benedict put an end to the frequently asserted claims that the sexual abuse problem was limited to the United States or the English-speaking world and that it was only a case of a few ‘bad apples’ whose misdeeds had been magnified to embarrass the Church.”

Father Beal said he disagrees with Benedict’s 2019 letter attributing the abuse crisis to the 1960s sexual revolution, secularization and moral destruction tied to liberal theology, a view that is in sharp contrast to Pope Francis’ characterization of the scandal as rooted in an abuse of power in the Church and an emphasis on authority.

“Benedict spent a lot of time trying to distance the Church as an institution from the sexual-abuse crisis and to portray it as an aberration by individuals and not to recognize the institutional contribution,” Father Beal said. 

Just as Pope Benedict went farther than his predecessor in dealing with the abuse crisis, Father Beal said Pope Francis has surpassed Pope Benedict in trying to hold responsible Church authorities, including bishops, who were negligent in their dealing with priests and others who had abused minors. However, he added, “It’s an evolving story and frankly, nobody covers themselves with glory in this whole thing.”

 


‘Steady and Reliable Guide’

Msgr. Oliver said in his time of working on the issue of sexual abuse, he was able to see in Pope Benedict the greatness of the man, the archbishop and Pope. 

“As we dug into the details of each unspeakably evil crime, he was a steady and reliable guide, constantly seeking justice for all involved, a justice that reflects God’s mercy and truth,” he said, adding the Pope “was someone who stood up for all of us, the one who decidedly changed the course of our history. He was the leader who said ‘no more’ and moved forward the work that proceeds today.”

The final judgment on Pope Benedict belongs to his Savior, Msgr. Oliver said. “And perhaps the most important truth for these days is that truly no one can doubt that Joseph Ratzinger belonged to Christ. Yes, it is true that our part here on earth is to make judgments regarding actions and motives and results. But I must admit that my own perspective on this wonderful, holy man is clearly limited. I do hope that in the future others will formulate valuable assessments with the necessary detachment and the broad, comprehensive views that are clearly needed to see the extent of sexual abuse in all parts of our societies.” 

In the wake of Pope Emeritus Benedict’s death, even as some claim he did not do enough to address the sexual-abuse crisis, Msgr. Oliver said, “I am confident that future assessments will see the context more clearly and then judge our successes and failures in ways that will continue to advance our hopes. They will also lead to the proper and just recognition of the greatness of Pope Benedict XVI.”

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