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‘Schülerkreis’ Comes to the Defense of Benedict XVI

‘Schülerkreis’ Comes to the Defense of Benedict XVI

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then-archbishop of Munich-Freising, takes part in the 85th Katholikentag event in Freiburg, Germany, on Sept. 13, 1978. (photo: AFP / AFP via Getty Images)

Some have criticized Benedict following the publication of a report that examined his time as archbishop of Munich-Freising, but others have rallied to Benedict’s defense.

ROME — New and old members of Benedict XVI’s “schülerkreis” — a theological discussion group Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger founded in 1978 for his former students — have come to the defense of the Pope Emeritus following a recent report that faulted him for his handling of abuse cases when he was archbishop of Munich and Freising from 1977-1982.

The members noted in a Jan. 31 statement that since the Jan. 20 publication of the report by a Munich law firm on the handling of abuse cases in the southern German archdiocese from 1949 to 2019, “many have strongly criticized” the former pope “and even accused him of lying.”

“This discredits not only his person and office,” the scholars wrote, “but also his work as a priest and his great theological accomplishments.”

“The Neuer Schülerkreis Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, whose members are inspired in their own writings by his theological works and want to carry on this legacy, is very keen to express its solidarity with its namesake also in this difficult situation,” they wrote.

The long-awaited report criticized the retired German pope’s handling of four cases during his time in charge of the southern German archdiocese as well the treatment of abuse cases by his successors, Cardinal Friedrich Wetter and Cardinal Reinhard Marx, whom the report says handled 21 and two cases, respectively.

Benedict XVI, who strongly denies cover-up allegations, sent 82 pages of observations to investigators compiling the report. Four days after the report’s publication, he apologized for mistakenly saying that he did not attend a disputed meeting in 1980 while serving as archbishop of Munich and Freising.

The former pope had initially told investigators that he was not present at a meeting of archdiocesan officials on Jan. 15, 1980, that concerned the handling of an abuse case. His personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, said the error was due to “the editing of his statement,” was “not done out of bad faith” and that he would explain how it came about in a forthcoming statement.

In their Jan. 31 statement, signed by three members of the original “schülerkreis” and two members of the board of the “Neuer Schülerkreis” that Benedict founded in 2008, the scholars drew attention to Benedict XVI’s achievements in fighting against clergy sexual abuse both as pope and as cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

As prefect, they wrote, he set about “combating and coming to terms with abuse in the Church and pushed through new decisive measures, which he developed further as pope.

“In doing so, he repeatedly sought, and with great sensitivity, meetings with those affected by abuse, especially during his trips abroad, and has left no doubt about how much he is ashamed of the crimes in the Catholic Church,” they added.

The statement’s signatories, who included Irish Divine Word Missionary Father Vincent Twomey — one of  Professor Ratzinger’s first “schülerkreis” students — recommended that those who wished to know more about the Pope Emeritus’ approach to the abuse crisis should read Benedict’s “sensitive letter to the Catholics of Ireland of March 19, 2010.”They also recommended reading a German-language dossier that summarizes his advocacy against abuse, compiled by the charitable arm of the Catholic German newspaper, Die Tagespost, as well as further references found on the Neuer Schülerkreis website.

“In personal encounters with Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, we have been able to experience again and again how much he has remained faithful to his chosen motto ‘co-worker of the truth’ in all his actions,” they added. “For this we are grateful to him.”

Since 2008, the group of former students of Joseph Ratzinger have met annually in late summer at the pope’s traditional summer residence in Castel Gandolfo outside Rome. Younger theologians who wished to explore his theology and felt connected to his spirituality have also taken part. In 2017, the “Neuer Schülerkreis Joseph Ratzinger/Papst Benedikt XVI” became a registered association at Benedict’s request.


Other Reactions

Although a number of critics, including German prelates and the president of the country’s bishops’ conference, have criticized Benedict following the publication of the report, others have rallied to Benedict’s defense.

They include Andrea Tornielli, editorial director of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication, who, like the “schülerkreis” members, also highlighted“very harsh norms against clerical abusers, special laws to combat pedophilia” that Benedict had put in place, as well as his sensitivity in meeting abuse victims.

“The reconstructions contained in the Munich report, which — it must be remembered — is not a judicial inquiry nor a final sentence, will help to combat pedophilia in the Church if they are not reduced to the search for easy scapegoats and summary judgments,” Tornielli wrote.

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said it was “downright grotesque” to imply Benedict was lying by attributing to him a “single event 42 years later, one of many hundreds of meetings which he may or may not have attended.”

Speaking to the Austrian Catholic website Kath.net Feb. 1, the German cardinal noted how those who mocked Cardinal Ratzinger as the “Panzerkardinal” for his tenacity in upholding the Church’s doctrine as CDF prefect, now criticize him for his lack of harshness in dealing with abuse cases, especially given his record of bringing neglected ecclesiastical penal law back into force.

He said the question of whether then-Archbishop Ratzinger took part in the meeting in 1980 in whole or in part was “not decisive” to the handling of the case. “It is just perfidious self-righteousness to throw the attendance list over his head and cynically hold it up to him like a trophy,” Cardinal Müller said.

“Every day I meet many people from different nations who ask me how it is possible that in Germany a pope from their homeland is called a liar,” he said. “In view of these events one can only be ashamed to be a German, above all because so many people who are of good will fall for the anti-Catholic propaganda.”

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