Reports of clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church have become so routine — and the scale of victimization and coverup so vast — that the effect is to dull the impact of each new revelation. It appears that over the course of decades, practically every higher-up in the institution knew, or should have known, what was going on.
Yet even the apparent sameness of so many disclosures and admissions, over so many years, should not blunt the importance of a recent report that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, as archbishop of the German cities of Munich and Freising from 1977 to 1982, failed to discipline abusive priests and enabled them to maintain their roles in ministry.
Similar allegations have been leveled, and often documented, regarding many bishops. But the German report, two years in the making, implicates a future pope, who at the time was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Even the ensnarement of a pope in the culture of coverup is not new. Pope John Paul II was blamed by a 2020 Vatican report for casting a blind eye at the culture of abuse generally, and of enabling the advancement of Theodore McCarrick, the former cardinal of D.C., who was later condemned for sexual abuse and stripped of his status as a priest.
The new report, commissioned by the German Catholic church and conducted by a law firm, is based on the church’s own documents and accounts from witnesses. “In a total of four cases, we came to the conclusion that the then-archbishop, Cardinal Ratzinger, can be accused of misconduct,” Martin Pusch, one of the authors, said in a news conference in January at the report’s unveiling.
In the course of the law firm’s inquiry, the former pope’s lawyers denied he had been at a meeting in 1980 in which the fate of a priest accused of pedophilia had been discussed. But when documents showed he had in fact attended the meeting, the former pontiff acknowledged through a spokesman that his previous assertion was “objectively false.”
Nearly two weeks after the report’s publication, Benedict finally came around to asking forgiveness for “abuses” and “errors” that happened on his watch — but not his own “abuses” and “errors.” He continues to deny any wrongdoing.
In the course of his papacy, from 2005 to his resignation in 2013, as the scope of abuse became increasingly obvious, Benedict did meet with abuse victims and moved to eject abusers from the church.
Yet even now, the scandal, the church’s most devastating in centuries, continues to swell. A massive French report last fall suggested there had been more than 200,000 victims of abuse in that country over the previous seven decades. Weeks later, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in an annual audit, documented more than 4,200 new allegations of sexual abuse of minors in the year ending in June. Most of them involved alleged incidents from decades earlier.
More than 1 billion Catholics worldwide remain faithful to a church that has delivered comfort, good works and education. Yet many are disillusioned by an institution that, even as it has made strides to reform its rules and culture, remains unable to fully face the extent of suffering it caused and allowed.
It has been 25 years since a Connecticut newspaper exposed one of the Catholic Church’s biggest sexual abuse scandals
By NICOLE WINFIELD
A Connecticut newspaper exposed one of the Catholic Church’s biggest sexual abuse scandals by reporting 25 years ago Wednesday that eight men had accused the revered founder of the Legion of Christ religious order of raping and molesting them when they were boys preparing for the priesthood.
It took a decade for the Vatican to sanction the founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel, and another decade for the Legion to admit he was a serial pedophile who had violated at least 60 boys. In the meantime, the original whistleblowers suffered a defamation campaign by the Legion, which branded them liars bent on creating a conspiracy to hurt a man considered a living saint.
As they marked the quarter-century anniversary of revelations that tarnished the legacy of St. John Paul II, three of Maciel’s victims are still seeking reparations from the Legion to compensate for the abuse they suffered and the “moral” harm done to their reputations by the order.
They had refused earlier compensation offers that their fellow survivors accepted, and a mediation process begun in 2019 has stalled, according to emails and documents provided to The Associated Press.
The Vatican in 2010 took over the Mexico-based Legion and imposed a process of reform after an investigation showed that Maciel had sexually abused seminarians and fathered at least three children with two women. The Vatican found he had created a system of power built on silence, deceit and obedience that enabled him lead a double life.
The findings were by no means news to the Holy See: Documents from Vatican archives show how a succession of popes, cardinals and bishops starting in the 1950s simply turned a blind eye to credible reports that Maciel was a con artist, drug addict, pedophile and religious fraud. The Vatican and especially John Paul, however, appreciated his ability to bring in vocations and donations.
The reality of Maciel’s depravity burst into the public domain Feb. 23, 1997, when The Hartford Courant published a lengthy expose by investigative journalists Jason Berry and the late Gerald Renner about Maciel and the order, whose U.S. headquarters were based in Connecticut.
The story, which formed the basis of a 2004 book “Vows of Silence,” quoted several victims by name who independently reported that Maciel would bring them into his bedroom at night, and under the pretense of abdominal pain, induce them to masterbate him.
“When The Courant ran the long investigative piece Renner and I did on Maciel, we thought Pope John Paul II would see the light and punish Maciel,” Berry told the AP in an email. He noted that other mainstream media only began reporting on clergy sexual abuse after the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” revelations in 2002. “By then, John Paul’s blind faith in Maciel was a cover-up by any other term, and lasted till his death.”
A year after the original Courant story, in 1998, the victims filed a formal canonical complaint against Maciel with the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where the case languished until after John Paul died. Maciel was sentenced in 2006 to a lifetime of “penance and prayer,” and he died in 2008, still considered a saint by the Legion.
Following the Vatican-mandated reform process, the Legion apologized and tried to make amends, even as it has been forced to confront revelations of a new generation of abusers within its ranks — some of them Maciel’s original victims — and the superiors who covered up for the crimes, some of whom remain in power.
In 2020, the Legion publicly retracted the “negative institutional and personal judgments about the character and motivations of the people who made legitimate and necessary accusations” in the original Courant expose. Naming the original victims, it said “Today we recognize as prophetic their accusations in favor of truth and justice.”
But Jose Barba, one of the most vocal of the original eight survivors, wants the Legion to formally retract what he calls the “lies” the order provided to the Courant to discredit him and the other victims. They include what he says were a falsified letter from a Chilean bishop who had investigated Maciel in the 1950s, and false statements from four Mexicans who claimed the victims had tried to enlist them in a conspiracy against Maciel.
Barba, who says he represents fellow survivors Arturo Jurado and Jose Antonio Perez Olvera, drafted a proposed letter to the Courant and the Vatican newspaper that he wanted the Legion to submit to retract the claims. But then Legion superior, the Rev. Eduardo Robles-Gil, refused during a December 2019 mediation meeting in Mexico City, Barba said.
In a Jan. 4, 2020 summary of that meeting, Barba said the Legion’s initial calculus of a low five-figure settlement offer for each of the three remaining victims was a “humiliation,” and he proposed a team of five arbitration experts to determine a more “just” reparation.
Robles-Gil signed the summary but wrote: “I receive this without accepting the process that is asked for and it remains at our consideration to accept it or not.”
The Legion’s new superior, the Rev. John Connor, tried unsuccessfully to engage with Barba after his February 2020 election, sending two letters that went unanswered until Barba emailed him on Jan. 5, 2021, seeking to restart negotiations.
Connor assured him he wanted to “find ways to contribute to heal and close the painful events of the history of our congregation.” But in an email, Connor said Barba’s proposal for five arbitration experts wouldn’t help “in finding a shared resolution.”
Barba never replied. “I don’t trust them because it’s not in good faith,” he told the AP.
In a statement to the AP, Legion spokesman the Rev. Aaron Smith noted that the order had reached settlements with most of the historic victims and hoped for a resolution with the remaining ones.
“We are sad that meeting still has not happened, especially considering the positive experience of the encounters with other victims of Fr. Maciel,” Smith said in a statement. “We continue to remain hopeful it will take place in the near future permitting open dialogue with him.”
Barba, meanwhile, says he is getting old and his two confreres are ailing. While they are hailed by ex-Legionaries as “los 8 Magnificos” (the Magnificent Eight) for having stood up to Maciel and the order, Barba recalls a Nov. 8, 1997 letter he and the others wrote to John Paul, translated into Polish, asking for the pope to hear their pain and do something.
“It appears inconceivable to us, Holy Father, that our grave revelations and complaints mattered absolutely nothing to you,” they wrote, according to a copy of the letter provided to the AP. “We want the church and society to understand that all we want is justice: not only for legitimate personal vindication, but for the good of the church and society.”
The Vatican this week is hosting a three-day symposium on the Catholic priesthood amid renewed public attention on clergy sex abuse scandals and fresh research into the abuses of priestly power
By NICOLE WINFIELD
The Vatican this week is hosting a three-day symposium on the Catholic priesthood amid renewed public attention on clergy sex abuse scandals and fresh research into the abuses of priestly power that harm both children and adults.
Pope Francis opens the symposium Thursday, and no fewer than a half-dozen Vatican cardinals are scheduled to either address the conference or preside over its sessions.
The high-level lineup suggests the topic has particular relevance as the Catholic hierarchy grapples with dwindling numbers of priests in Europe and the Americas and calls for a reform of everything from celibacy requirements to the role of women in the church.
But the sex abuse scandals are still making news, most recently with allegations that Pope Benedict XVI botched cases when he was an archbishop. While such revelations have been emerging for decades, new attention is focused on clergy who abuse their power to engage in sexual activity with adults, oftentimes abusing them spiritually in the process.
Recent developments have shed light on a problem the Vatican has long tried to ignore. These include the #MeToo movement, revelations of nuns abused by priests and the scandal over disgraced ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was defrocked in 2019 after the Vatican determined he bedded adult seminarians as well as minors.
Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis told his fellow bishops over a year ago that the McCarrick scandal “gives us the moment to speak about” the abuse of adults in the Church, and to do some “mature thinking” about how to address their trauma and the clergy who cause it.
The Catholic hierarchy has long insisted that these are consensual “affairs” between adults that are sinful for the priest but not criminal. But recent Catholic scholarship underscores that the behavior amounts to professional sexual misconduct, and that victims are traumatized both by the acts themselves and the church’s dismissive response.
Recently a team of German researchers published an anthology of 23 women who describe the spiritual and sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of priests, many of them current or former nuns but some laywomen as well.
The women described being trapped in toxic relationships with purportedly celibate, holy men, unable to break free because of the trauma bonds they formed with their abusers.
The stories were the subject of a conference this month organized by the Centre for Safeguarding Minors and Vulnerable Persons at the Catholic St. Paul University in Ottawa.
“There is a growing community, a network of academics, scholars and survivors,” said Doris Reisinger, a former nun and survivor of adult abuse who has become a leading researcher in the field.
Australian researcher Stephen De Weger recently published a thesis on the sexual abuse of adults which also examined the role the purportedly celibate priesthood has in the problem. He took as a starting point the estimate by the late Richard Sipe, a former priest and researcher, and confirmed by other studies, that only about 50% of priests abide by their vow of chastity, and that clerics are far more likely to engage in sexual misconduct with adults than children.
He noted that Australia’s Royal Commission investigation into institutional abuse found nearly 30,000 adults had been “sexually involved” with Australian Catholic clergy since the 1950s. Much of the scandal over the sex abuse of minors, De Weger argued, was due to the culture of secrecy created by religious superiors who didn’t take action against priestly pedophiles because they had their own sexual skeletons in the closet.
“They don’t want this stuff exposed,” De Weger said in a phone interview. “Why? Because the male, supposedly celibate clergy are the core central power base of the church. If you start exposing the fact, that like Sipe says, 50% have given up on chastity, that’s going to really rock their power to the core.”
While this week’s Vatican conference isn’t expected to tackle such problems, celibacy and the role of women in the church are on the official agenda.
One of the speakers, theologian Michelina Tenace, told a Vatican press conference that the abuse scandals were evidence the whole process of discerning priestly vocations and training seminarians must be rethought.
“One way to verify the call to the priesthood must be to never aspire to any power,” she said.
Victims of pedophile priests in Italy will unveil Tuesday a campaign dubbed “Beyond the Great Silence”, pushing for an independent investigation into clerical abuse carried out on the Vatican’s doorstop.
As inquiries across the United States, Europe and Australia have exposed the scale of the sex abuse problem within the Church — and also a decades-long cover-up — many groups say Italy can no longer avoid scrutiny.
“The government must act, must take advantage of the momentum created by impartial investigations elsewhere,” Francesco Zanardi, founder of Rete l’Abuso (Abuse Network), told AFP.
“If Italy doesn’t do it now, I fear it never will,” said Zanardi, who was abused by a priest as a young teen.
Nine groups are now forming a consortium aimed at putting pressure on the country to launch a probe, like the ones seen recently in France and Germany.
Cristina Balestrini, who set up a support group for families after her son was abused by a priest, told AFP that the most important thing for survivors was “to make sure it never happens again”.
Not all those molested will survive, “there are many victims who commit suicide, and no one knows about it,” Balestrini said.
Rete L’Abuso has recorded more than 300 cases of priests accused or convicted of child sexual abuse in the past 15 years in Italy, out of a total of 50,000 priests across the country.
Giada Vitale is just one example the group cites. She was a shy 13-year old organ player when her parish priest, Marino Genova, abused her in the vestry. She would be molested for three years.
Vitale’s tormentor was convicted in 2020, but victim groups say such a conviction is rare because Italy lags behind other countries in tackling predators.
Precise figures on the scale of the problem are impossible to come by.
The Vatican’s top clerical abuse advisor told AFP this month it was time for the Catholic-majority country to hold its own reckoning.
The church is not as powerful as it once was in Italy, the historic home of popes. But it retains a huge influence and two-thirds of the population are believers, according to a 2019 survey.
Pope Francis, who has toughened the punishments meted out to abusing priests under Vatican law, on Monday streamlined the Vatican office that processes abuse complaints, in an attempt to expedite cases.
But Zanardi of Rete l’Abuso said he “would have little faith” in an in-house investigation.
‘Victims twice over’
Balestrini, 56, is also distrustful of the church since “they acted as if we were the enemy, making us victims twice over” after her teenage son was abused in 2011.
The cleric in question, Mauro Galli, as initially quietly moved to another parish. He would later be convicted.
She hopes the consortium will be able to pressure the church to open its archives, because the scandal, she said, “is much bigger than you can imagine”.
Balestrini said unearthing the truth would not be easy for Italy, but the church would be wise to take an active role in cleaning itself up.
“At the moment, they are trying to keep a lid on it, but it’s better to choose to take the lid off yourself, than have it blown off.”
A report on decades of clergy sexual abuse in Germany that shone an unflattering spotlight on retired Pope Benedict XVI has added to already strong pressure there for the church to reconsider Catholic rules on issues including homosexuality and women’s roles, creating a mounting sense of impatience.
The latest flare-up of the sexual abuse scandal in the German church, one of the world’s richest, comes as a trailblazing reform process launched in 2019 in response to the abuse crisis begins to call for concrete changes.
The “Synodal Path,” which brings together Catholic bishops and lay representatives, approved at an assembly last week calls to allow blessings for same-sex couples, married priests and the ordination of women as deacons. It also called for church labor law to be revised so that gay employees don’t face the risk of being fired.
Many of those reform plans still need formal approval at future assemblies, but they put the German church on a potential collision course with the Vatican, whose approval would in most cases be needed to implement them.
The increasing pressures for reform coincides with a turbulent year in the German church. First came a furor over the conservative Cologne archbishop’s handling of reports on how church officials dealt with abuse cases, which led to Pope Francis granting him a “spiritual timeout.”
Then, last month, came a long-anticipated independent report commissioned by the Munich archdiocese into decades of abuse cases there. It faulted their handling by a string of church officials past and present, including Benedict, who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was archbishop there from 1977 to 1982.
The German-born Benedict on Tuesday asked forgiveness for any “grievous faults” in his handling of clergy sex abuse cases, but denied any personal or specific wrongdoing.
Reform advocates and victim support groups criticized what they saw as a tone-deaf response that evaded responsibiity. The head of the German Bishops’ Conference, Limburg Bishop Georg Baetzing, put out a tight-lipped tweet saying Benedict “deserves respect” for having responded.
And the bishop of Essen, Franz-Josef Overbeck, told the Catholic newspaper Neues Ruhrwort that he fears Benedict’s statement won’t help abuse victims work through what happened to them.
Overbeck said he notes with concern that “people affected by sexual violence have reached with disappointment and in some cases also indignation to the former pope’s comments on his time as archbishop of Munich and Freising.”
The current Munich archbishop, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, welcomed Benedict’s response and again stressed that he himself takes the report “very seriously.”
Marx is a prominent reformist ally of Francis. A major thrust of his response to the report, in which he was faulted himself, has been to insist that the church needs “really deep renewal” to emerge from the abuse crisis.
Last week, Marx made his clearest call yet for loosening the celibacy requirement for priests, saying there is a “question mark” over “whether it should be taken as a basic precondition for every priest.” Another top European progressive, Jesuit Cardinal Jean Claude Hollerich, archbishop of Luxembourg and head of the commission of EU bishops conferences, called for changes in the Catholic Church’s position on homosexuality and priestly celibacy.
Meanwhile, the German Bishops’ Conference welcomed an initiative last month by 125 church employees who publicly outed themselves as queer, saying they want to “live openly without fear” in the church and pushing demands for reform.
At its weekend meeting, delegates to the “Synodal Path” strongly backed calls for a “change of culture” in church labor law, Baetzing said. They also called for the faithful to be given more of a say in choosing new bishops.
However, it’s unclear how many of the reforms proposed by the “Synodal Path,” whose next assembly is scheduled for Sept. 8-10, will become reality.
Sessions so far have pointed to a clear pro-reform majority, including among German bishops. But the process has sparked fierce resistance inside the church, primarily from conservatives opposed to opening any debate on hot-button issues.
It is being watched closely in Rome, where Francis has encouraged such “synodal” deliberations by national churches but has also sent out a strong warning to not go beyond established Catholic doctrine.
While progressives cheer calls for changes to church positions on celibacy and homosexuality, conservatives have voiced alarm that the German church is heading to schism, or a formal break from Rome. And while Francis has issued groundbreaking gestures of openness and welcome to gay Catholics, he has not altered the church’s teaching that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.”
Francis also has dodged taking a stand on allowing married priests or on women deacons.
Phyllis Zagano of Hofstra University, who served on Francis’ first study commission on women deacons, cheered the German vote in favor of them and said the church as a whole needs them. The vote, she said, “comes at a time when the church continues to struggle against its history of abuse and its embedded clericalism, which combine to drive away women and their families.”
But the papal nuncio in Germany, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, offered no encouragement to the synodal assembly in a statement that emphasized the importance of the broader global church, the German news agency dpa reported.
He noted that “the pope is, so to speak, the point of reference and the center of unity for over 1.3 billion Catholics worldwide, 22.6 million of whom live in Germany.”