How are we to interpret the revelation that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI misled a sex abuse inquiry? That might seem an odd question. What is there to 'interpret' about the former Archbishop Ratzinger's decision 43 years ago to allow a child abuser, Peter Hullermann, to live in Munich after he was thrown out of the diocese of Essen in 1979 for molesting an 11-year-old boy? The priest subsequently reoffended after Ratzinger moved on from the diocese, becoming Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under John Paul II.
And shouldn't we be shocked that a former pope told this huge inquiry into decades of abuse in Munich that he wasn't at a meeting in 1980 that discussed Hullermann, when in fact he was? The 94-year-old retired pontiff has apologised for a 'mistake for which he begs to be excused'. Well, we've heard that before, from scores of bishops who've tried to evade responsibility for their casual attitudes to predator priests.
Benedict's reputation will be damaged by last week's report. By placing Hullermann in a rectory while he received 'psychological treatment', he made it possible for an abuser to remain in ministry. And that mistake is certainly compounded by his false claim, submitted in 80 pages of evidence, that he wasn't at the meeting.
But there are other factors to be taken into account. There always are in today's rancid Catholic Church, in which historic abuse cases are exploited by both conservative and liberal factions.
Ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington was found to have seduced seminarians and is now charged with assaulting a teenage boy. But does anyone think conservative fury at the McCarrick cover-ups was generated purely by the betrayal of the victims? 'Uncle Ted' was a liberal power-broker for decades and close to the anti-traditionalist cardinals who engineered Pope Francis's election. His disgrace was humiliating for Francis, who had rehabilitated him. For many conservatives, it was a heaven-sent opportunity to settle scores.
However harshly you judge Benedict, he can't be compared to the monster McCarrick. Even so, there's abundant evidence that, once again, theological warfare is being waged by other means. Catholic liberals are settling scores with Benedict's former allies, traditionalist critics of Pope Francis.
Ed Condon, editor of the Catholic news website the Pillar, writes that Benedict's failure in Munich 'places his leadership on a par with his peers' at the time. If that doesn’t sound sufficiently damning to the pope emeritus’ critics, it’s certainly no vindication of him either.'
That's true, but look how craftily the story is being framed by the anti-Ratzinger German journalists and their liberal contacts in the Catholic Church.
Benedict is accused of failing to act in five cases, none of which involved sex abuse committed in Munich during his term of office. An analysis published on Tuesday by Inside the Vatican magazine argues that the Westpfahl Spilker Wastl report by the Munich law firm that led the inquiry has gone to desperate lengths to incriminate the Pope Emeritus without much to show for it. Hullermann is an appalling creature, but Ratzinger's chief mistake seems to have been to accept the now-discredited consensus of the day that sex offenders could be cured.
Luke Coppen, former editor of the Catholic Herald, provides context missing from coverage of the Munich report. 'The media are happy to give ample coverage of the report's criticisms of Benedict XVI, but barely mention that Cardinal Reinhard Marx, currently in charge of Munich archdiocese, is also accused of mishandling abuse cases,' he says. Coppen goes on:
“Who benefits from the push to discredit Benedict XVI, who dismissed hundreds of abusers from the priesthood when he was pope? Arguably, the current leadership of the Catholic Church in Germany, which is seeking to chart a path very different from that of Benedict with their 'Synodal Way'. It is unfortunate that Benedict was forced to correct the record. But it seems that the 94-year-old has had little help from the Vatican in responding to investigators' questions and there appears to be no rush to defend him amid the current wave of outrage in Germany.
I'd go further and suggest that it's in the interests of the current pontificate to associate Benedict XVI with a failure to tackle sex abuse. It may help distract attention from a series of allegations of sexual and financial corruption that, as I've said many times before, appear to implicate Latin American clergy who have been closely associated with Pope Francis.
Mainstream media outlets are reluctant to chase up these stories, but if you want to put Benedict XVI's mistakes in a shockingly fresh perspective, then I suggest you google the names of Julio Grassi, Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, Bishop Juan Barros and Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga.