Emeritus Pope Benedict admits to false clerical sex abuse testimony

Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI. It was ‘overwhelmingly likely’ he knew about abusing priests in his archdiocese, investigators have found. File photograph: Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP via Getty Images

Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI has admitted he did not tell the truth to a German investigation into clerical sex abuse in the Munich archdiocese.

Last week investigators dismissed as “not credible” the former archbishop of Munich’s insistence he was not present at a January 1980 meeting during which Munich’s archdiocese ordinate committee – which he headed – discussed a request by the Essen diocese to accept a priest, identified only as Peter H, for psychotherapy.

The therapy was to address the priest’s paedophile tendencies. However, both in Essen and later in Munich after a transfer there, the priest abused at least a dozen youths. Despite warnings from his superiors in Essen, the priest was put to work in Munich parishes. Even after a suspended sentence for child abuse in 1986, he remained active in Munich pastoral work.

The case of Peter H is one of four abusing priests that Munich investigators have linked to Benedict’s time as archbishop of Munich and Freising from 1977 to 1982.

In Benedict’s original testimony, which he submitted in writing to investigators last month, the 94-year-old denied he was present at the key meeting on January 15th, 1980. Presenting their report last Thursday, investigating lawyers presented written minutes of the meeting indicating the opposite.

Now Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the retired pope’s personal secretary, has issued a statement correcting the record and conceding the original claim was “objectively wrong”.

“He [Benedict] would like to make clear that, contrary to the account in the context of the testimony, he participated in the ordinariate sitting of January 15th, 1980,” said the archbishop, saying the mistake “did not happen in bad faith but is a consequence of an oversight in the editorial editing of his statement”.

He said Benedict was still reading the nearly 2,000-page report by investigators, covering the era 1945-2019, and would provide a response in due time. This response, Archbishop Gänswein added, will include further information on how his false testimony arose.

“He is very sorry for this mistake and asks to forgive it,” said Archbishop Gänswein, noting that, at the meeting in question, no decision was made about whether to accept the priest for therapy.

Apart from this one correction, the 94-year-old stands by the rest of his original testimony that he had “no knowledge about the history of the priest in his home diocese”, the archbishop said.

Long-term memory

In his original testimony, Benedict insisted that his long-term memory was good and that, whenever he said in his written statement he had no memory of something, he was “convinced that I have not met the person or that I did not know the facts or the document”.

His partial U-turn now is the latest twist in a long-running drama over his handling of Peter H, who gave teenagers alcohol and showed them pornography before sexually abusing them.

In 2010, when the first details of the Peter H case leaked from a suppressed report, officials in Munich and Rome moved quickly to insist the then pontiff, while archbishop of Munich, had known nothing of the abuse.

An internal diocesan investigation from 2016 concluded the contrary: “The then archbishop, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and his ordinariate council were, knowing the facts, ready to take on priest H.”

In doing so, those investigators concluded, the council members “consciously waived a sanctioning of criminal acts” and “ignored” a 1962 obligation to report the priest to Rome.

In their 2,000-page report released last week, lawyers commissioned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Munich and Freising to examine diocesan archives from 1945-2019 identified 497 cases of clerical sex abuse and 235 perpetrators – but said the true number is likely to be higher.

It was “overwhelmingly likely”, their report said, that archbishop Ratzinger was aware of abusing priests in his archdiocese.

“His conviction that anything of which he has no memory did not happen seems to the investigators as neither credible nor sound,” the report notes.

“Emeritus Pope Benedict clearly put church and priestly interests ahead of the interests of injured parties . . . the readiness of Benedict XVI to reflect self-critically on his own role and (at least co-)responsibility . . . is not apparent.”

In the report, the pope’s former deputy in Munich said he was “pressurised” by his superiors in 2010 to take sole responsibility for the Peter H case.

On Thursday, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich, will hold a press conference to comment on the report’s findings and consequences.