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What now for senior clergy who covered up abuse?

Many Catholics will have found the news from Germany this past week painful. A law firm, Westpfahl Spilker Wastl, has presented findings in its investigation into historic sexual abuse in the Munich archdiocese.

Running to 1,000 pages, the report is shocking: it lists at least 497 victims for the period 1945–2019 and identifies 235 probable offenders including 173 priests and nine deacons.

Naturally, much interest now centres on events that took place during Joseph Ratzinger's archepiscopal tenure between 1977 and 1982.

Ratzinger's handling of claims of abuse during his administration of the archdiocese and his role in the decision to re-employ a known abuser within it have understandably become key matters under scrutiny.

The lawyers therefore did not find his testimony credible. And his successor in Munich, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who is also criticized in the report, says he is 'shocked and ashamed' by everything that went on.

Benedict stands accused of having misled the Church when he wrote in 2013: 'I can only, as you know, acknowledge it with profound consternation. But I never tried to cover up these things.'

He now admits to having made a mistake in his testimony and blames the inconsistencies between it and other records on an 'editorial error'.

To reiterate, this was only ever a 'fact finding' investigation by a law firm, which does not have the authority to make its findings legally binding.

And many will feel white hot anger at the forensic demonstration of yet another instance of morally compromised behaviour on the part of ecclesiastical authorities.

Even a charitable reading of the actions of the parties to this case suggests that they were, at best, wilfully blind. The Holy Father emeritus finds his integrity seriously undermined: ascribing inaccuracies to his lawyers won't wash.

Benedict, who unwisely blamed the sexual revolution of the 1960s for the abuse crisis, is also on record as warning about the evils of moral relativism.

My esteemed ACU colleague David Kirchhoffer, who studies Benedict's theology, creates subtle arguments to show that Benedict does not, in fact, intend his words to resonate in quite the absolutist terms that others sometimes hear in them.

But his words currently do him no favours even as his acolytes scramble to marshal his defences. Several lines of exculpation for his conduct would seem possible: he was busy, he is old, few bishops at that time understood the gravity of their own complicity in institutional cover-ups.

"To forgive is not to forget. But not to forgive is also no solution." Benedict also seems unlucky to have had the focus thrust on him in his extreme old age. Those within the Church who would condemn him should ask themselves if they can truly be sure that similar inquiries might not reveal equivalent lapses of oversight or judgement involving the leaderships of every diocese at some point in the past five decades?

Yet such arguments risk looking hypocritical when engaged in support of a man who has been so firm about the wrongheadedness of relativizing morality. And, in a way, the matter has also already moved beyond such questions as how much or for what Benedict is blameworthy.

The imperative now is surely that of action: not so much what to do but how to cope? It may tempt to demand righteous punishment for the guilty but what would such a course of action achieve here? Benedict is ninety-four.

Reinhard Marx is only sixty-nine but, having offered to resign his see and having renounced the Federal Cross of the Order of Merit (one of Germany's highest honours) in order to placate protests by abuse survivors, he has already paid a certain price.

Would we also have him emulate John Profumo by dedicating the rest of his life to good works? Was he not already doing that as a cardinal archbishop? Must we insist that he withdraw from public life into solitude and obscurity as well?

Insisting on greater oversight of Church officials and their accountability also seems compelling.

Except that, in general, stronger rules and regulations are now in place across much of the Western world. Here in Australia the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has issued its final report and recommendations, and various parties have made serious efforts to implement them.

Moreover, the now notorious mistreatment of Cardinal Pell in Victoria ought also to remind us that the powers of state authorities are no panacea. Secular governments are no more infallible as purveyors of justice than anyone else is.

The harsh reality is that there is sometimes no sufficient action on the part of those involved that can atone them fully, nor are there further concrete steps that any of us can take to right the past's mistakes.

But the reality is also that those who have sinned, like those who have been sinned against, must go on: we cannot stop our lives and we cannot turn back.

We can — indeed we must — acknowledge the anger, the sadness, the betrayal. And we must continue to pursue all paths that will lead to telling truths, bringing justice, and promoting responsible leadership milestones on that journey.

But we must also seek out mercy and forgiveness which are our best resources against curdling revulsion.

To forgive is not to forget. But not to forgive is also no solution. As a student of European history, I know that Catholic bishops have not always set the best example of such responses. Sometimes their flocks must guide them.

Dr Miles Pattenden is Senior Research Fellow in Medieval and Early Modern Studies at Australian Catholic University. His books include Electing the Pope in Early Modern Italy, 1450-1700 (Oxford University Press, 2017) and he is and Co-Editor of The Journal of Religious History (2022–).


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