For the legions of people whose childhoods and adult lives were wrecked by sexual and physical abuse at the hands of the Roman Catholic clergy, Pope Benedict XVI is an unloved pontiff who will not be missed.
Victims of the epidemic of sex- and child-abuse scandals that erupted under Benedict’s papacy reacted bitterly to his resignation, either charging the outgoing pontiff with being directly complicit in a criminal conspiracy to cover up the thousands of paedophilia cases that have come to light over the past three years, or with failing to stand up to reactionary elements in the church resolved to keep the scandals under wraps.
From Benedict’s native Germany to the USA, abuse victims and campaigners criticised an eight-year papacy that struggled to cope with the flood of disclosures of crimes and abuse rampant for decades within the church. Norbert Denef, of the NetworkB group of German abuse victims, said: “The rule of law is more important than a new pope.”
Denef, 64, from the Baltic coast of north Germany, was abused as a boy by his local priest for six years. In 2003, Denef took his case to the bishop of Magdeburg. He was offered €25,000 (then £17,000) in return for a signed pledge of silence about what he suffered as a six-year-old boy. He then raised the issue with the Vatican and received a letter that said Pope John Paul II would pray for him so that Denef could forgive his molester.
“We won’t miss this pope,” said Denef. He likened the Vatican’s treatment of the molestation disclosures to “mafia-style organised crime rings”.
That view was echoed by David Clohessy in the US, executive director of SNAP (Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests), an organisation with 12,000 members: “His record is terrible. Before he became pope, his predecessor put him in charge of the abuse crisis.
“He has read thousands of pages of reports of the abuse cases from across the world. He knows more about clergy sex crimes and cover-ups than anyone else in the church yet he has done precious little to protect children.”
Jakob Purkarthofer, of Austria‘s Platform for Victims of Church Violence, said: “Ratzinger was part of the system and co-responsible for these crimes.”
Before becoming pope, there were also major scandals in the US and Ireland at a time when Pope John Paul II had put the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in charge of dealing with them.
A combination of deep rancour and disgust over the crimes and disaffection with the conservative ethics of the Catholic hierarchy has nudged the church in Austria towards schism, with rebel priests leading an anti-Vatican movement of hundreds of thousands, dubbed We Are The Church.
“He should have come clean about the abuses, but was not really able to change anything fundamentally,” said Purkarthofer. “The resignation is a chance for real change, perhaps the best thing he could have done for the church.”
While also intensely critical, some Irish victims of the seminaries, convent schools, and church-run orphanages gave the pope the benefit of the doubt, but lamented that not enough action had followed Benedict’s expressions of remorse in the spring of 2010.
“When the pope issued his pastoral letter to the people of Ireland we welcomed it,” said one Irish campaigner. “Because of the sincerity of the words in that letter from the pope in the name of the church. He said he was ‘truly sorry’ and accepted that our ‘dignity had been violated’.
“So we went on to meet the group of bishops in Ireland thinking that this would be a new era. But what we got instead were pastoral platitudes and special masses offered up.”
The fallout from these scandals continues to reverberate. Next Monday campaigners for justice are to protest in the ancient west German city of Trier when the country’s church leadership gathers. Last month a church-sponsored inquiry into the abuses collapsed in disarray amid recrimination between the clergy and outside criminologists involved in the examination.
A similar situation persists in Austria, where a church-led inquiry into the abuse and compensation has degenerated, in the view of activists, into a smokescreen. In Belgium, where the head of the church nationally had to resign and then made matters worse by going on television to plead innocence while admitting “intimacy” by having boys in his bed, there are parallel frustrations with the partial nature of the church’s openness.
A couple of years ago US activists sought to file a criminal suit against the Vatican at the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague, while victims’ associations responded to the current drama by demanding an international commission be set up to examine Catholic paedophilia, independent of the church.i
Clohessy said a big question for Benedict’s successor is “what he will do in a very tangible way to safeguard children, deter cover-ups, punish enablers and chart a new course.
“There are 30 bishops in the US [who] have posted on the diocese websites the names of predator priests. The pope should require bishops to do that and to work with secular lawmakers to reform archaic sex abuse laws so that predators from every walk of life face justice.”
John Kelly, one founder of Ireland’s Survivors of Child Abuse group and a former inmate at Dublin’s notorious Artane Industrial School, which was run by the Christian Brothers, said Benedict had resisted their demands to properly investigate and disband religious orders tainted by sexual and physical abuse.
“In our view, we were let down in terms of promises of inquiries, reform and most importantly of all the Vatican continuing not to acknowledge that any priest or religious bodies found guilty of child abuse would face the civil authorities and be tried for their crimes in the courts.
“I’m afraid to say Pope Benedict won’t be missed as the Vatican continued to block proper investigations into the abuse scandals during his term in office. Nor are we confident that things are going to be different because of all the conservative Cardinals he appointed. For us, he broke his word.”
The Austrian campaigner called for church files on paedophilia to be opened and generous compensation for the victims.
Denef pointed to the discrepancies between the response in the US and in Europe, insisting that clergy suspects must be brought before the law.
“From our point of view, Ratzinger did nothing to support the victims. Instead, perpetrators and serial perpetrators were protected and moved to new jobs,” he said.
“Victims in the US have been compensated sometimes with more than a million dollars and the personal files of the perpetrators were put on the internet. But the victims of sexual violence by the clergy in Germany had to settle for a few thousand euros, often conditional on pledges of silence and no more claims.
“We demand from German politicians that this concern [the church] is no longer beyond the rule of law. That’s more important than waiting to see whether a new pope will be more reactionary than the old one.”
• This article was amended on 13 February 2013 because the original attributed quotes from Norbert Denef, of NetworkB, to Matthias Katsch. Katsch is not a member of NetworkB. The original has also been amended to correct the description of NetworkB. It is not a “group of German clerical-abuse victims” as the original said, but a group of German abuse victims.