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Gerard O’ConnellFebruary 08, 2022
This Dec. 8, 2015 file photo shows Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI sitting in St. Peter's Basilica as he attends the ceremony marking the start of the Holy Year. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI has written a “mea culpa” in a penitential letter, released by the Vatican today, that he calls “a confession” in response to the charges made against him in the report on abuse in the Archdiocese of Munich published on Jan. 20. In it, he takes personal responsibility and asks forgiveness for “the abuses and the errors” that occurred on his watch when he held different positions of great responsibility in the church, not just in Munich but also in Rome.

“Once again, I can only express to all the victims of sexual abuse my profound shame, my deep sorrow and my heartfelt request for forgiveness. I have had great responsibilities in the Catholic Church,” he wrote in a key paragraph of the two-page letter. “All the greater is my pain for the abuses and the errors that occurred in those different places during the time of my mandate. Each individual case of sexual abuse is appalling and irreparable. The victims of sexual abuse have my deepest sympathy and I feel great sorrow for each individual case.”

Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI has written a “mea culpa,” in which he asks forgiveness for “the abuses and the errors” that occurred when he held different positions of great responsibility in the church.

Benedict also responded forcefully to those who have called him “a liar” because in his original response to the Munich report he denied that he was present at a meeting in 1980 in which the request was made to allow an abuser—the Rev. Peter Hullerman—to reside in Munich for therapy. It was a genuine mistake in the editorial process, he explained: “This error, which regrettably was verified, was not intentionally willed and I hope may be excused.”

His main defense is contained in a three-page communication issued together with the letter from the four advisors that helped draft his original response to the Munich report. This communication, which Benedict called “an appendix to my letter,” was issued with his approval. That text states clearly that at the 1980 meeting then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was “neither aware that the priest was an abuser, nor that he [subsequently] was included in pastoral activity” in the archdiocese. 

The text also states that Cardinal Ratzinger did not know that the other three priests mentioned in the report were abusers. He is accused of mishandling their cases. The analysis of the facts in the Munich report made by his four advisors states: “In none of the cases analyzed by the expert report was Joseph Ratzinger aware of sexual abuse committed or suspicion of sexual abuse committed by priests. The expert report provides no evidence to the contrary.”

Benedict begins his letter by telling the people of the Archdiocese of Munich as well as his global audience, “I am increasingly struck by the fact that day after day the Church begins the celebration of Holy Mass—in which the Lord gives us his word and his very self—with the confession of our sins and a petition for forgiveness.”

“We publicly implore the living God to forgive [the sins we have committed through] our fault, through our most grievous fault. It is clear to me that the words ‘most grievous’ do not apply each day and to every person in the same way,” he wrote. “Yet every day they do cause me to question if today too I should speak of a most grievous fault. And they tell me with consolation that however great my fault may be today, the Lord forgives me, if I sincerely allow myself to be examined by him, and am really prepared to change.”

“In all my meetings, especially during my many Apostolic Journeys, with victims of sexual abuse by priests, I have seen at first hand the effects of a most grievous fault.”

Benedict next recalled moments during his papal travels in different countries when he became the first pope to personally meet with victims of abuse. “In all my meetings, especially during my many Apostolic Journeys, with victims of sexual abuse by priests, I have seen at first hand the effects of a most grievous fault,” he wrote. “And I have come to understand that we ourselves are drawn into this grievous fault whenever we neglect it or fail to confront it with the necessary decisiveness and responsibility, as too often happened and continues to happen.”

“As in those meetings, once again I can only express to all the victims of sexual abuse my profound shame, my deep sorrow and my heartfelt request for forgiveness. I have had great responsibilities in the Catholic Church. All the greater is my pain for the abuses and the errors that occurred in those different places during the time of my mandate,” he continued. “Each individual case of sexual abuse is appalling and irreparable. The victims of sexual abuse have my deepest sympathy and I feel great sorrow for each individual case.”

Then, in a reflection that developed over the 20 days since the publication of the Munich report, he links this to the agony of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemani, and how the disciples were asleep then, as so many pastors in the church have been in these past decades as abuse was happening, and indeed some still are sleeping.

“I trust firmly that the Lord is not only the just judge, but also the friend and brother who himself has already suffered for my shortcomings, and is thus also my advocate.”

“I have come increasingly to appreciate the repugnance and fear that Christ felt on the Mount of Olives when he saw all the dreadful things that he would have to endure inwardly,” he wrote. “Sadly, the fact that in those moments the disciples were asleep represents a situation that, today too, continues to take place, and for which I too feel called to answer. And so, I can only pray to the Lord and ask all the angels and saints, and you, dear brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.”

Benedict will turn 95 on April 16. Mindful of this, in his letter he looks to his death and writes: “Quite soon, I shall find myself before the final judge of my life. Even though, as I look back on my long life, I can have great reason for fear and trembling, I am nonetheless of good cheer, for I trust firmly that the Lord is not only the just judge, but also the friend and brother who himself has already suffered for my shortcomings, and is thus also my advocate, my ‘Paraclete.’”

“In light of the hour of judgment, the grace of being a Christian becomes all the more clear to me. It grants me knowledge, and indeed friendship, with the judge of my life, and thus allows me to pass confidently through the dark door of death,” he wrote. “In this regard, I am constantly reminded of what John tells us at the beginning of the Apocalypse: he sees the Son of Man in all his grandeur and falls at his feet as though dead. Yet He, placing his right hand on him, says to him: ‘Do not be afraid! It is I…’” (Rev 1:12-17).

In his letter he also thanks the many people who have expressed their trust in him, notwithstanding the charges against him in the Munich report, as well as his advisors. In particular, he thanked Pope Francis “for the confidence, support and prayer” that he “personally expressed to me.”

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