The clerical sex abuse scandal festered and then broke open under Pope John Paul II in the years that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — who would later become Pope Benedict XVI — headed the Vatican’s doctrinal office, which handled the cases of priests accused of abusing children.
Presented with case files, Cardinal Ratzinger sometimes set disciplinary measures in motion, even having accused priests defrocked. But other times, the record shows, he took the side of the accused priests and failed to listen to the victims or their warnings that an abuser could violate more children.
When Cardinal Ratzinger became pope, the scandal exploded publicly throughout the global church.
During his time as pope, his efforts to rid the church of what he called “filth” went further than those of John Paul II, but he was reluctant to hold bishops accountable for shuffling abusive priests from assignment to assignment, angering survivors and advocates.
Benedict himself was swept up in the scandal after the release of a report in January 2022 that had been commissioned by the Roman Catholic Church in Munich to investigate the archdiocese’s handling of sexual abuse from 1945 to 2019.
The report claimed that Benedict had mishandled four cases decades earlier involving the sexual abuse of minors while he was an archbishop in Germany. It also accused him of having misled investigators in his written answers.
Two weeks after the report was released, Benedict acknowledged that “abuses and errors” had been made. He asked for forgiveness but denied any misconduct.
Survivors and victims groups had mixed feelings about his legacy.
“Ratzinger was less communicative than Francis but he moved” in the right direction, when it came to confronting the clerical abuse scandal, the first pope to really do so, said Francesco Zanardi, the founder of Rete l’Abuso, the largest victims group in Italy. That said, “the real challenge is changing the culture of individual bishops, and that can be enormous.”
Anne Barrett Doyle, a co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a victims advocacy and research group, said in a statement that Benedict would be “remembered chiefly for his failure to achieve what should have been his job one: to rectify the incalculable harm done to the hundreds of thousands of children sexually abused by Catholic priests.”
When he resigned, Benedict “left hundreds of culpable bishops in power and a culture of secrecy intact,” she said.
“Instead of remedies, he gave us words,” Ms. Barrett Doyle said. “His failure to enact real change in the church’s handling of sexually abusive priests will be his significant and shameful legacy.”
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, was harsh in its assessment of how Benedict dealt with clerical abuse.
“In our view, the death of Pope Benedict XVI is a reminder that, much like John Paul II, Benedict was more concerned about the church’s deteriorating image and financial flow to the hierarchy versus grasping the concept of true apologies followed by true amends to victims of abuse,” SNAP said in a statement on Saturday.
“It is past time,” the group said, “for the Vatican to refocus on change: tell the truth about known abusive clergy, protect children and adults, and allow justice to those who have been hurt.”
“Honoring Pope Benedict XVI now is not only wrong. It is shameful,” SNAP said.