Benedict XVI, Munich, and cover-up claims: why an old allegation is resurfacing

The Frauenkirche, the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising The Frauenkirche, the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising. | Thomas Wolf, via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0 de).

Claims that the future Benedict XVI covered up an abuse case in the German Archdiocese of Munich and Freising resurfaced this week, more than 10 years after the Vatican firmly rejected the allegations.

The claims reemerged in the German media on Jan. 4, when Die Zeit newspaper published an extensive report on the archdiocese’s handling of the case of Father Peter Hullermann, who is accused of abusing at least 23 boys aged eight to 16 between 1973 and 1996.

The priest, identified in German reports only as “H.”, was suspended from his duties in the Diocese of Essen in 1979 over allegations that he abused an 11-year-old boy.

He was moved in 1980 to the Munich archdiocese, led by the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger from 1977 to 1982. Hullermann was found guilty of molesting boys in a parish of the archdiocese in 1986.

Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict XVI’s private secretary, told Die Zeit: “The claim that he had knowledge of the previous history [allegations of sexual assault] at the time of the decision on the admission of Father H. [to the archdiocese] is wrong. He had no knowledge of his previous history.”

The German newspaper’s report appeared ahead of the publication of a major study of the archdiocese’s response to clerical abuse cases later this month.

The study, compiled by the Munich law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl, is titled “Report on the Sexual Abuse of Minors and Vulnerable Adults by Clerics, as well as [other] Employees, in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising from 1945 to 2019.”

CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner, reported that Die Zeit also published an interview on Jan. 4 with two canon lawyers, who accused Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Munich archbishop since 2008, of mishandling the Hullermann case.

Marx, whose resignation was declined by Pope Francis last year, did not respond to questions from Die Zeit, referring to the imminent publication of the abuse study.

What happened when the story first broke

The Hullermann case was brought to light in March 2010 by the Munich-based daily Süddeutsche Zeitung.

On March 12, 2010, the Munich archdiocese released a statement in which its former vicar general Msgr. Gerhard Gruber took “full responsibility” for the failure to prevent Hullermann from exercising pastoral ministry.

The archdiocese offered a detailed account of the case, saying that the Diocese of Essen requested that the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising accept Hullermann as a chaplain in January 1980, so that the priest could undergo therapy.

Hullermann was given accommodation in a rectory to enable him to attend therapy sessions. “The archbishop at the time [Ratzinger] took part in this decision,” the archdiocese said.

“In a departure from this decision, however, H. was then assigned without any restrictions to pastoral assistance in a Munich parish by the vicar general at the time,” the statement said.

“From this time (Feb. 1, 1980, to Aug. 31, 1982) there were no complaints or allegations about H.”

The statement quoted Gruber as saying: “The repeated use of H. in parish pastoral care was a grave error. I take full responsibility for it. I deeply regret that this decision resulted in that offense with juveniles and apologize to all those who were harmed.”

More in Europe

The case was picked up by the international media, including the New York Times, which alleged that the future German pope was copied on a memo following a meeting on Jan. 15, 1980 which said that Hullermann would be placed in a parish just after starting “medical-psychotherapeutic” treatment for his involvement in child sex abuse.

The article quoted Father Lorenz Wolf, judicial vicar at the Munich archdiocese, who said that it was a “routine” memo that was “unlikely to have landed on the archbishop’s desk.” He added that the possibility that Cardinal Ratzinger had read it could not be ruled out.

The Vatican responded by pointing to the statement from the Munich archdiocese which, it said, “confirms the position, according to which the then-archbishop [Ratzinger] had no knowledge of the decision to reassign Father H. to pastoral activities in a parish.”

The German magazine Der Spiegel suggested in April 2010 that Gruber was pressured to take responsibility for the decisions about Hullermann. But in a letter to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the former vicar general insisted that this was not the case.

When the story broke, Hullermann was suspended from his post in the Bavarian town of Bad Tölz, where he had been transferred in 2008. CNA Deutsch reported that the priest, now aged 74, is believed to be living in the Diocese of Essen again since spring 2021.

The most recent developments

Die Zeit reported that it had seen a 43-page decree issued in 2016 by the Munich archdiocese’s ecclesiastical tribunal. The document, it said, declared that Hullermann could no longer exercise his priestly ministry and ordered him to make a financial contribution to a children’s foundation.

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The newspaper said that the decree, which mentioned Ratzinger by name, strongly criticized the Church authorities for failing to prevent Hullermann’s abuse, claiming that they had “deliberately refrained from sanctioning the offense.”

In an email to Die Zeit, Gänswein insisted that this did not apply to the future Benedict XVI. “He had no knowledge of the allegations of sexual assault,” he said.

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