When and why did Pope Benedict XVI resign?

Former pontiff accused of ‘misconduct’ by German law firm over alleged failure to act on child abuse cases

Joe Sommerlad
Thursday 20 January 2022 16:43
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Related video: Pope Benedict XVI leaves the Vatican on the final day of his papacy in 2013

A German law firm has accused the former Pope Benedict XVI of failing to act in four historic child abuse cases that he was allegedly notified of during his tenure as archbishop of Munich and Freising.

The now retired pontiff, 94, held the post in question between 1977 and 1982 and was allegedly presented with information about the abuse at that time but declined to take action, prompting the firm, Westpfahl Spilker Wastl, to accuse him of “misconduct”.

“In a total of four cases, we came to the conclusion that the then-archbishop, Cardinal Ratzinger, can be accused of misconduct,” said Martin Pusch, co-author of the report.

The ex-pope, whose name is Joseph Ratzinger, has denied the accusations. His spokesperson has said he “takes the fates of the abuse victims very much to heart” and is fully “in favour of the publication of the Munich report”.

At least 3,677 people were abused by German clergy between 1946 and 2014, according to a church-commissioned study published four years ago. The majority of victims were aged under 13.

Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI on 19 April 2005 when he succeeded Pope John Paul II as head of the Roman Catholic Church and served until 28 February 2013, when he made way for his successor, the current incumbent Pope Francis.

His abrupt resignation after eight years made him him the first pontiff in almost 600 years to step down (the last was Gregory XII in 1415), with Benedict citing his waning health as the reason for his decision. He told his cardinals in a speech delivered in Latin at the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace that a “lack of strength of mind and body” had begun to have an adverse impact on his work, leading him to “recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me”.

Speaking to the BBC at the time, Nigerian cardinal Francis Arinze accepted a journalist’s suggestion that dismay at the “Vatileaks” scandal - which had seen the then pope’s private correspondence concerning Vatican infighting leaked by his exasperated butler, Paolo Gabrielle - could have been Benedict’s primary motivation in standing aside.

The letters provided the basis for Gianluigi Nuzzi’s best-selling 2012 book: His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI.

Gabrielle, who said his relationship with Benedict was like that between father and son, insisted he had meant to expose internal corruption but was sentenced to 18 months in prison, only to be pardoned before that year was out.

“It is legitimate for a person to speculate and say ‘maybe’, because some of his documents were taken secretly. It could be one of the reasons,” Cardinal Arinze said. “Maybe he was so pained that his own butler leaked out so many letters that a journalist was able to write a book. It can be one of the reasons. I don’t expect him to be enjoying that event.”

Pope Francis has, in turn, spoken out against “narcissistic” political squabbling within the highest echelons of the church, declaring: “The court is the leprosy of the papacy.”

It has been suggested that Benedict’s weary complaint of lacking “strength of body and mind” specifically meant he did not have the reformist zeal necessary to deal with the vested interests and financial scandals embarrassing Vatican elders at the time, or to implement the modernising drive needed to bring Roman Catholicism up to speed with 21st century concerns.

“The church needed someone with more physical and spiritual energy who would be able to overcome the problems and challenges of governing the church in this ever-changing modern world,” his papal press secretary, Father Federico Lombardi, said at the time.

As pope, Benedict had inherited the sexual abuse scandal that rocked his church worldwide at the turn of the new millennium and had taken several steps to address the issue. He ended the service of Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, an influential Mexican priest frequently accused of abuse, met with victims in person in 2008 (a papal first), personally apologised to others in a pastoral letter to Ireland, and oversaw the defrocking of 384 offending priests between 2011 and 2012, according to The New Yorker.

Perhaps the extent of that crisis ultimately proved too much for Benedict.

The former pontiff now reportedly spends his days writing and praying in solitude at the Vatican’s Mater Ecclesiae monastery.

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