Former pope Benedict XVI knowingly failed to take action to stop four priests accused of child sex abuse in Munich, according to the findings of a damning independent report presented on Thursday.
The ex-pontiff – who was the archbishop of Munich and Freising from 1977 to 1982 – has “strictly” denied any responsibility, said lawyer Martin Pusch of Westpfahl Spilker Wastl (WSW), which was commissioned by the church to carry out the probe.
But the experts do not consider this credible, he said.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni emphasised that it must still examine the report, “the contents of which are not currently known”, but reiterated the Vatican’s “sense of shame and remorse for the abuse of minors committed by clerics”.
Two of the cases where Benedict – whose civilian name is Josef Ratzinger – allegedly failed to act involved clergymen who had committed several proven acts of abuse but were allowed to continue with pastoral duties, Pusch said.
An interest in the abuse victims was “not recognisable” in Benedict, he said.
In one case, a now notorious paedophile priest named Peter Hullermann was transferred to Munich from Essen in western Germany where he had been accused of abusing an 11-year-old boy.
Hullermann was reassigned to pastoral duties despite his history.
In 1986, by which time Benedict had been transferred to the Vatican, Hullermann was convicted of molesting more children and given a suspended prison sentence.
Even after the conviction, he continued to work with children for many years and his case is regarded as a pertinent example of the mishandling of abuse by the Church.
The report, which examined the years 1945 to 2019, also accused Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the current archbishop of Munich and Freising, of failing to act in two cases of suspected abuse.
Pusch said Benedict had initially shown a “defensive attitude” when responding to questions for the investigation. However, he later changed his attitude and gave a detailed written statement.
Benedict, 94, in 2013 became the first pope to step down from the role in 600 years and now lives a secluded life in a former convent inside the grounds of the Vatican.
The reformist Catholic group “Wir sind Kirche” (We are Church) called on the ex-pontiff to take responsibility.
“An admission by Ratzinger that through his actions or inactions, knowledge or ignorance, he was personally and professionally complicit in the suffering of many young people would be… an example for many other bishops and responsible persons,” it said in a statement.
Germany’s Catholic Church has been rocked by a string of reports in recent years that have exposed widespread abuse of children by clergymen.
A study commissioned by the German Bishops’ Conference in 2018 concluded that 1,670 clergymen in the country had committed some form of sexual attack against 3,677 minors between 1946 and 2014.
However, the real number of victims is thought to be much higher.
Another report published last year exposed the scope of abuse committed by priests in Germany’s top diocese of Cologne.
Marx had last year offered Pope Francis his resignation over the church’s “institutional and systemic failure” in its handling of child sex abuse scandals.
However, Pope Francis rejected his offer, urging the cardinal known for his reforms to stay and help shape change in the Catholic Church.
The abuse scandal has thwarted the Catholic Church’s efforts to spearhead broad reforms in Germany.
It counted 22.2 million members in 2020 and is still the largest religion in the country, but the number is 2.5 million fewer than in 2010 when the first major wave of paedophile abuse cases came to light.
Payouts for victims of abuse were increased in 2020 to up to 50,000 euros (US$56,700), from around 5,000 euros previously, but campaigners say the sum is still inadequate.
Ahead of the publication of the Munich report, the Eckiger Tisch victims’ group called for more “compensation instead of hollow words”.
“Far too many children and young people have fallen victim” to a system “shaped by abuse of power, intransparency and despotism”, said Matthias Katsch, a spokesman for the group.