By Andrea Gagliarducci
Benedict XVI never sought to cover up cases of sex abuse by clergy. That is the conviction of the German Bishop Stefan Oster.
In a reflection published on his website on Jan. 30, the bishop of Passau, southeastern Germany, defended the pope emeritus from accusations that he had deliberately concealed his attendance at a meeting in 1980, where it was agreed that a priest accused of abuse could be transferred to the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, then led by the future German pope.
Oster also raised the question of whether recent attacks on Benedict XVI indicated that the pope emeritus still presents a threat to a specific vision of the Church being advanced in Germany.
The case of Father Peter Hullermann is one of four in which Benedict was faulted in a more than 1,000-page report concluding that there were at least 497 victims of abuse in the Munich archdiocese from 1945 to 2019.
The study was commissioned by the archdiocese in southern Germany and drawn up by the Munich law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl.
Benedict XVI, the archbishop of Munich and Freising from 1977 to 1982, gave an 82-page statement to investigators. His testimony stressed that he had not attended a meeting at which Hullermann’s transfer to the Munich archdiocese to undergo therapy was discussed.
A year before the 1980 meeting, Hullermann — identified only as “H.” by the German media — was suspended in his Diocese of Essen after he was accused of abusing an 11-year-old boy. The priest would ultimately be accused of abusing at least 23 boys between the ages of eight and 16 from 1973 to 1996.
After the Munich report was released, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, private secretary to the pope emeritus, issued a statement saying that Benedict was, in fact, present at the meeting. He explained that the mistake was the result of an editing error.
The admission aroused anger in Germany, with some critics asserting that Benedict XVI, known as Joseph Ratzinger before his election as pope in 2005, had sought to cover up his role in the decision to transfer the priest.
Oster noted in his statement that Benedict XVI’s presence at the 1980 meeting was already a matter of public record. Not only was it reported by news media when the Hullermann case drew international attention 12 years ago, but it also featured in a biography of Benedict written by the German author Peter Seewald.
The bishop of Passau recalled that Seewald’s biography, published in 2020, said that “Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger was present at the decisive session of 1980 when it came to determining whether the abuser H. could move from the diocese of Essen to that of Munich.”
Oster recalled that Ratzinger “consented that H. could undergo therapy in Munich.” He said this showed that Benedict’s involvement in this fateful affair had been publicly documented for a long time and it was clear that in the meeting, “it was not a question of admitting H. to the cure of souls, but only of his stay in Munich for treatment.”
Oster has led the Passau diocese since 2014. The 56-year-old bishop’s diocese includes Marktl, the village where Benedict XVI was born in 1927, and the Bavarian Shrine of Our Lady of Altötting, a place close to Benedict XVI’s heart.
Critics had also objected to what they saw as the legalistic tone of Benedict’s statement to investigators. Oster acknowledged that the text had “more the character of a legal defense than of the usual Ratzinger level of language and spirituality.”
Addressing the correction about Benedict’s presence at the 1980 meeting, Oster said that the 94-year-old pope emeritus had “entrusted himself to collaborators who committed a capital error on a decisive point.”
The Passau bishop suggested that the pope emeritus wanted to appear “as irreproachable as possible” — an attempt “that today can work little or not at all, especially after our current learning experiences in the matter of abuse.”
“We were and are all too much a part of a system — and so was Archbishop Ratzinger at the time,” he wrote. “And in this system, for too long, there was indeed almost no interest in the concrete fate of people affected by abuse and hardly any knowledge of their stories.”
The prelate said that the other three cases which Ratzinger allegedly mishandled showed “in my estimation, evidence of a customary way of dealing with these issues and the people involved at the time, and ‘customary’ does not mean that today they can be considered good.”
Oster underlined that he did not see any evidence that “Benedict XVI wanted to cover up.” At the same time, he added, “this still does not take into account the consequences that some omissions nevertheless had for the victim.”
Oster, therefore, expected Benedict XVI to return to the report, considering that he had seen “well in advance that we all had, and have, a huge need to learn concerning those affected [by abuse] in our Church.”
Indeed, Benedict “was one of the first to recognize this in Rome — and as a cardinal he helped very many in a decisive position to see it better — through concrete, effective measures and many conversations with those affected and a harsh judgment of the perpetrators.”
Oster said that Benedict achieved this “against no small opposition in the Vatican.”
But today, the bishop said, the “outrage about the alleged ‘lie’ [about the 1980 meeting] now falls back fully on the 94-year-old and is supposed to discredit his entire life’s work.”
Oster recalled that he had met with Benedict XVI several times since he was appointed bishop of Passau and appreciated the retired pope’s clarity, honesty, and humility. He suggested that the fury against Benedict XVI might be because the pope emeritus generates discomfort.
He asked whether some wanted to discredit “a certain figure or conception of the Church with Benedict, because one wants a completely different Church than the one for which he stands.”
He concluded: “And does one really do justice to the person, the human being, when one pronounces such a quick overall moral judgment about his life in the spirit of a stirred-up public opinion and a dominant moral vision? Or is the whole thing simply another example in the unstoppable game of media outrage culture, which has become commonplace in the meantime, followed by the next one the day after tomorrow?”