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 “famous” 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?
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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.