The words that were used during the press conference to present the report on abuse in the Archdiocese of Munich, as well as the seventy-two pages of the document dedicated to the brief Bavarian episcopate of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, have filled the newspapers in the past week and have triggered some very strong comments. The Pope emeritus, with the help of his collaborators, did not evade the questions of the law firm commissioned by the Archdiocese of Munich to draw up a report that examines a very long span of time, from the episcopate of Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber to that of the current Cardinal Reinhard Marx. Benedict XVI provided an 82-page response, after having been able to examine some of the documentation in the diocesan archives. Predictably, it was Ratzinger’s four and a half years at the helm of the Bavarian diocese that monopolized the attention of commentators.
Some of the accusations have been known for more than ten years and had already been published by important international media. Today, there are four cases being contested against Ratzinger, and his personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, has announced that the Pope Emeritus will issue a detailed statement after he has finished examining the report. In the meantime, however, the reiterated condemnation of these crimes by Benedict XVI can be forcefully repeated, and the steps taken by the Church in recent years, starting from his pontificate, can be retraced.
Child abuse is a horrendous crime. The abuse committed against minors by clerics is possibly an even more revolting crime, and this has been tirelessly repeated by the last two Popes: it’s a sin that cries out vengeance before God that little ones suffer violence on the part of priests or religious to whom their parents have entrusted them to be educated in the faith. It is unacceptable that they become victims of sexual predators hiding in ecclesiastical garb. The most eloquent words on this subject remain those pronounced by Jesus: those who scandalize the little ones would do better to hang a millstone around their necks and throw themselves into the sea.
It cannot be forgotten that Ratzinger, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had already fought the phenomenon in the last phase of the pontificate of Saint John Paul II, with whom he had been a close collaborator, and once he became Pope, promulgated very harsh norms against clerical abusers, special laws to combat paedophilia. What’s more, with his concrete example, Benedict XVI testified to the urgency of that change of mentality that is so important to counter the phenomenon of abuse: listening and closeness to the victims to whom forgiveness must always be asked. For too long abused children and their relatives, instead of being considered wounded persons to be welcomed and accompanied on the path of healing, have been kept at a distance. Unfortunately, they have often been distanced and even pointed to as “enemies” of the Church and its good name.
Joseph Ratzinger was the first Pope to meet several times with victims of abuse during his apostolic journeys. It was Benedict XVI, even against the opinion of many self-styled “Ratzingerians”, who upheld, in the midst of the storm of scandals in Ireland and Germany, the face of a penitential Church, who humbles herself in asking for forgiveness, who feels dismay, remorse, pain, compassion and closeness.
It is precisely in this penitential image that the heart of Benedict's message lies. The Church is not a business, it is not saved only by good practices or by the application, even if indispensable, of strict and effective norms. The Church needs to ask for forgiveness, help and salvation from the Only One who can give them, from the Crucified One who has always been on the side of the victims and never of the executioners.
With extreme lucidity, on the flight that took him to Lisbon in May 2010, Benedict XVI recognized that “the sufferings of the Church come precisely from the inside of the Church, from the sin that exists within the Church. We have always been aware of this, but now we do see it in a truly appalling way: that the greatest persecution of the Church does not come from the external enemies, but is born of sin within the Church, and that the Church needs deeply to learn repentance again, to accept purification, to learn forgiveness on one side and the need for justice on the other. Forgiveness does not replace justice”. These words were preceded and followed by concrete facts in the fight against the scourge of clerical paedophilia. All this can neither be forgotten nor erased.
The reconstructions contained in the Munich report, which — it must be remembered — is not a judicial inquiry nor a final sentence, will help to combat paedophilia in the Church if they are not reduced to the search for easy scapegoats and summary judgments. Only by avoiding these risks will they be able to contribute to the search for justice in truth and to a collective examination of conscience on the errors of the past.