ROME (AP) — Retired Pope Benedict XVI asked forgiveness Tuesday for any “grievous faults” in his handling of clergy sex abuse cases, but denied any personal or specific wrongdoing after an independent report criticized his actions in four cases while he was archbishop of Munich, Germany.
“I have had great responsibilities in the Catholic Church. All the greater is my pain for the abuses and the errors that occurred in those different places during the time of my mandate,” the retired pope said.
But Benedict’s lack of a personal apology or any admission of guilt was likely to rile survivors and further complicate efforts by German bishops re-establish credibility with the faithful. Demands for accountability have only increased as the church has come to terms with decades of sexual abuse by priests and cover-up by their bishops.
Benedict, 94, was responding to a Jan. 20 report from a German law firm that had been commissioned by the German Catholic Church to look into how cases of sexual abuse were handled in the Munich archdiocese between 1945 and 2019. Benedict, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, headed the archdiocese from 1977 to 1982.
The report faulted Benedict’s handling of four cases during his time as archbishop, accusing him of misconduct for having failed to restrict the ministry of the priests in the cases even after they had been convicted criminally. The report also faulted his predecessors and successors, estimating there had been at least 497 abuse victims over the decades and at least 235 suspected perpetrators.
The Vatican on Tuesday released a letter that Benedict wrote to respond to the allegations, alongside a more technical reply from his lawyers who had provided an initial 82-page response to the law firm about his nearly five-year tenure in Munich.
The conclusion of Benedict’s lawyers was resolute: “As an archbishop, Cardinal Ratzinger was not involved in any cover-up of acts of abuse,” they wrote. They criticized the report’s authors for misinterpreting their submission, and asserted that they provided no evidence that Benedict was aware of the criminal history of any of the four priests in question.
Benedict’s response was far more nuanced and spiritual, though he went on at length to thank his legal team before even addressing the allegations or the victims of abuse.
In the letter, Benedict issued what he called a “confession,” recalling that daily Mass begins with believers confessing their sins and asking forgiveness for their faults and even their “grievous faults.” Benedict noted that in his meetings with abuse victims while he was pope, “I have seen at first hand the effects of a most grievous fault.
“And I have come to understand that we ourselves are drawn into this grievous fault whenever we neglect it or fail to confront it with the necessary decisiveness and responsibility, as too often happened and continues to happen,” he wrote. “As in those meetings, once again I can only express to all the victims of sexual abuse my profound shame, my deep sorrow and my heartfelt request for forgiveness.”
His response drew swift criticism from the progressive reform group Wir sind Kirche (We are Church), which said he offered nothing new and confirmed that the retired pope “still sees himself as a victim.”