VATICAN CITY – Germany’s sex abuse scandal has now reached Pope Benedict XVI: His former archdiocese disclosed that while he was archbishop a suspected pedophile priest was transferred to a job where he later abused children.
The pontiff is also under increasing fire for a 2001 Vatican document he later penned instructing bishops to keep such cases secret.
The revelations have put the spotlight on Benedict’s handling of abuse claims both when he was archbishop of Munich from 1977-1982 and then the prefect of the Vatican office that deals with such crimes – a position he held until his 2005 election as pope.
And they may lead to further questions about what the pontiff knew about the scope of abuse in his native Germany, when he knew it and what he did about it during his tenure in Munich and quarter-century term at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Benedict got a firsthand readout of the scandal Friday from the head of the German Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, who reported that the pontiff had expressed “great dismay and deep shock” over the scandal, but encouraged bishops to continue searching for the truth.
Hours later, the Munich archdiocese admitted that it had allowed a priest suspected of having abused a child to return to pastoral work in the 1980s, while Benedict was archbishop. It stressed that the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger didn’t know about the transfer and that it had been decided by a lower-ranking official.
The archdiocese said there were no accusations against the chaplain, identified only as H., during his 1980-1982 spell in Munich, where he underwent therapy for suspected “sexual relations with boys.” But he then moved to nearby Grafing, where he was suspended in early 1985 following new accusations of sexual abuse. The following year, he was convicted of sexually abusing minors.
The pope, meanwhile, continues to be under fire for a 2001 Vatican letter he sent to all bishops advising them that all cases of sexual abuse of minors must be forwarded to his then-office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and that the cases were to be subject to pontifical secret.
Germany’s justice minister, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, has cited the document as evidence that the Vatican created a “wall of silence” around abuse cases that prevented prosecution. Irish bishops have said the document had been “widely misunderstood” by the bishops themselves to mean they shouldn’t go to police. And lawyers for abuse victims in the United States have cited the document in arguing that the Catholic Church tried to obstruct justice.
But canon lawyers insisted Friday that there was nothing in the document that would preclude bishops from fulfilling their moral and civic duties of going to police when confronted with a case of child abuse.
“Canon law concerning grave crimes … doesn’t in any way interfere with or diminish the obligations of the faithful to civil laws,” said Monsignor Davide Cito, a professor of canon law at Rome’s Santa Croce University.
In the United States, Dan Shea, an attorney for several victims, has introduced the Ratzinger letter in court as evidence that the church was trying to obstruct justice. He has argued that the church impeded civil reporting by keeping the cases secret and “reserving” them for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
“This is an international criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice,” Shea said.