Overview:

Joseph Ratzinger is one of the most loathsome men alive, responsible for the immiseration of thousands, if not millions, of his fellows.

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When Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, boarded the plane at Ciampino Airport, Rome, he wondered if he would be greeted by stern-faced German policemen when he landed in Munich. Since giving up his job as God’s representative on Earth, he had ensconced himself within the safety of the Vatican, protected from the threats of lawsuits and criminal charges for allowing, for decades, the rape of children by Catholic priests. His brother in Regensburg was ill, however, and he was willing to take the risk of leaving safety to visit him. Anyway, who would dare to lay hands on a former head of state, never mind one who had been handpicked by the creator of the universe to lead the world’s billion or so faithful Catholics?

Benedict’s arrogance would prove to be justified. Of course, he wasn’t arrested. Of course, he visited his brother in peace and returned to the Vatican unmolested. After all, he had done nothing wrong. He had simply protected the sanctity of the universal church during his tenure as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Inquisition) and as Pope.

According to his detractors, his upholding and retrenching of the operation of a parallel legal system based on Catholic Canon Law in other sovereign nations—a system which systematically favored priests accused of horrific crimes against children and which barely, if at all, punished those found ‘guilty’ under its laughable and impotent ‘justice’ system and which insisted on absolute secrecy from the accuser under pain of ex-communication and which classed the ordination of women and homosexual acts as equally evil as child rape—had allowed pedophile priests to conduct their crimes for decades with scarcely a challenge. In other words, Benedict could be held directly responsible for the rapes of thousands of children.

Benedict’s detractors might even come up with a very childish comparison for his recent sojourn to Regensburg: imagine if an elderly German, believed on strong grounds to have been involved in the Holocaust but kept safe from investigation because of his residence in a recognized sovereign state which had no extradition treaties, had flown out to visit an ailing relative. Would the forces of international law and order have looked away? Of course not! Thus, Benedict’s detractors might say, the fact that the former Pope was able to do something similar was a scandal.

But Benedict knew he was right. He knew that he had protected the Church’s sovereignty, even to the extent of undermining the sovereignty of many nations across the world. And what else but the protection of the Church mattered? He was God’s voice on Earth. He had to protect the Church or else souls would be endangered. As Archbishop of Munich, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and then as Pope, he had tried to keep the Church safe.

That this blew up in his face, in the end, was the fault of scandal-hungry journalistic hacks who traded gossip for readers and clicks, not him. Besides, as he had publicly told the world long ago, any abuse of children by priests was a symptom of gay culture and modern promiscuity, nothing to do with priestly celibacy or the Church’s covering up and moving on of pedophile priests.

Such were the meditations of Joseph Ratzinger upon his return from Regensburg to the Vatican. Still, he couldn’t quite shake off the doubts he felt when he had flown out. What if he had been arrested? Did he, in fact, owe something to justice? Perhaps leaving the Vatican had been a stupid risk to take. He decided he shouldn’t do it again. He had nothing to hide, he was completely innocent of any misdeeds, the long arm of the law would never dare touch him, of course, of course. But, he thought, I will stay here until I die now, just in case the infidels and heretics find a way to haul me into the dock.

Ratzinger on trial

The above is, of course, fiction. I borrowed this device from Daniel Gawthrop’s excoriating 2013 book The Trial of Pope Benedict, wherein Gawthrop vividly imagines, once at the beginning and once at the end, Joseph Ratzinger in the Hague. The rest of the book is an analysis of Ratzinger’s long and sordid career until his resignation as Pope in 2013. As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and as Pope, argues Gawthrop, Ratzinger was largely responsible for the betrayal of the progressive promise of the Second Vatican Council as well as the clerical sex abuse scandal that has so sullied the Church.

For Gawthrop, Ratzinger—whether silencing and persecuting clerics who argued for liberation theology in the face of brutal South American dictators (ones often supported by the institutional Church) or hounding women theologians or excommunicating priests who dared to ordain females or deposing bishops tolerant of gay people or failing miserably to address the child sex abuse crisis that happened largely under his watch—presided over one of the most viciously reactionary periods in recent Church history and “destroyed the Roman Catholic Church.”

It is hard to disagree with Gawthrop here. For example, one of the most staunchly Catholic nations in the world, Ireland, was rocked by the abuse revelations and the Church’s response to them, leading to a mass exodus of the flock. And Gawthrop’s coruscating analysis is all the more convincing because he was once a Catholic himself. Though now an atheist, he still evinces concern for the Church’s wellbeing and is dismayed by its descent into depravity and its betrayal of the possibilities afforded by the Second Vatican Council.

I admit, though, that while Gawthrop’s perspective makes his case perhaps more compelling than if it had come from a militant atheist, I cannot quite share his lament. He seems to think that if only the Church had made good on the progressiveness of the Second Vatican Council, that if only it hadn’t been wrecked by the reactionaries John Paul II and Benedict XVI, that if only John Paul I had lived a little longer, then the Church might be a real force for good now. But my disagreement with this is that the problems of the Church are not just problems of particular personalities and officeholders, not even just problems inherent in the Church, but problems with religious faith and authority themselves. Yes, it would be better if we had a more liberal Catholic Church; but it would be best if we had no infallible popes in the first place. That way, the rights of gays and women and democratic opposition to fascists would not be reliant on the whim of an old man in Rome absurdly exercising the power of a sovereign state on behalf of his superstitions.

This is a difference of emphasis, though, and in no way detracts from Gawthrop’s convincing analysis of Joseph Ratzinger’s career. I wholeheartedly recommend his book. Alongside Geoffrey Robertson’s 2010 The Case of the Pope, it is the best exposure and analysis of the evils of the contemporary Catholic Church. Chief among these evils, of course, is the child sex abuse scandal.

That the Church used its status as a supposed sovereign state to insist upon operating this parallel legal system in other countries, thus undermining those countries’ own sovereignty, might have been an irony or hypocrisy, but was in any case a shameful affront to both morality and the law.

The Pope, international criminal?

Robertson’s book makes the case that the Vatican, and Ratzinger specifically, may well be liable to civil and criminal charges, including charges of crimes against humanity. His compelling book is detailed on the legal aspects and he himself is a distinguished human rights lawyer, whose previous defenses of persecuted Catholics and avowals of admiration for the good works done by the Church also mark him as perhaps a more persuasive analyst of the Church’s crimes than any New Atheist type like me.  

As Robertson shows, under Canon Law during Ratzinger’s career, there was no serious investigation of the sort found in most criminal justice systems of those accused of child sex abuse, strict secrecy on the part of accusers was enforced upon pain of ex-communication (a punishment, by the way, that was not to be handed out even to priests ‘convicted’ of abuse), there was an absolute aversion to informing the civil authorities about such accusations, and there was no real punishment for child sex abusers worthy of the name (the worst was laicization, or defrocking, and even this ultimate sanction was rarely imposed). In many cases, abuser priests were simply moved on to other parishes to offend again.

And all of this—all of it—sanctioned under Canon Law, the law of the Roman Catholic Church, whose supremacy for all members of the flock, wherever they were, was insisted upon by Joseph Ratzinger. That the Church used its status as a supposed sovereign state to insist upon operating this parallel legal system in other countries, thus undermining those countries’ own sovereignty, might have been an irony or hypocrisy, but was in any case a shameful affront to both morality and the law.

Pedophile priests in the Church? Blame the gays!

Defenders of the Church insisted that pedophile priests were a tiny problem. According to Ratzinger, they made up less than one percent of the clergy. But a 2004 study commissioned by the US Catholic Bishops Conference found that since 1950, 4.3% of priests in the US had been plausibly accused of abuse—and this was almost certainly an underestimate, given that the study relied on information given voluntarily by church authorities.

These figures showed that the abuse problem in the Church was not comparable to such problems in other institutions and professions: it was far worse. And even if the numbers were as Ratzinger claimed, Robertson argues that this defense “misses the point, namely that this church, through its pretensions to be a sovereign state, with its own non-punitive Canon Law, has actually covered up the abuse and harbored the abusers. Moreover, this particular religion endows its priests with god-like powers in the eyes of children, who are put into their spiritual embrace from the time when they first develop the faculty of reasoning.” In short: the problem in the Catholic Church was both quantitively and qualitatively worse than any other child sex abuse crisis anywhere else in the world, perhaps in all of history.

(As for blaming the gays, which one of Ratzinger’s closest allies Tarcisio Bertone did as late as 2010, a church-sponsored conference on pedophilia in 2003 found that there was no causal connection between a priest being gay and being an abuser. Not only that, but the 2004 study mentioned above showed that most of the abuser priests were ordained well before the 1980s/90s “gay culture” that Ratzinger blamed the crisis on).

Ratzinger’s responsibility for child sex abuse in the Church

Very well, a defender of the Church might say, this is all awful, but it can’t be pinned on Joseph Ratzinger directly. Alas, this defense fails too. As head of the CDF, Ratzinger upheld the Crimen Sollicitationis, a secret 1962 document approved by Pope John XXIII which detailed the worst crimes it was possible to commit under Canon Law, including child sex abuse (though homosexual acts were regarded as “the foulest crime”), and how to deal with them. As Gawthrop puts it, “The Crimen contained virtually no investigation process, no acknowledgment of child abuse as a serious crime, and thus, no suggestion that the police should be involved.” That Ratzinger presided over this system for thirty years makes him directly responsible for the systematic cover-up of child sex abuse by Catholic priests.

In 2001, Ratzinger updated Crimen to state that all sexual abuse cases must be referred to the CDF, still under absolute secrecy (“no snitching to the civil authorities,” paraphrases Gawthrop). By 2010, with all the revelations about pedophile priests that had come out in the last few years and decades, one might have thought that Ratzinger, now Pope, would be ready to put his house in order. In July of that year, he released another update of the Crimen. This extended the Canon Law version of the statute of limitations by 10 years and allowed priests to be defrocked without a hearing, but essentially reinforced the same, rotten system. Absolute secrecy was once more reasserted and there was still to be “no snitching.” Thankfully, the Pope was just as focused on the serious stuff: now, attempting to ordinate women as priests was made an offense as “grave” as child sex abuse!

And all of this without mentioning Ratzinger’s involvement in specific cases of covering up child sex abuse in the Church. Gawthrop gives a long list of relevant cases. Here, let us consider just two.

First, in 1980, as Archbishop of Munich and Freising, Ratzinger chaired a meeting that approved the transfer of a known pedophile priest, Peter Hullermann, to his archdiocese. Hullermann was then assigned to another parish where he abused boys for another six years before his arrest. He was given a suspended sentence and continued to work in church posts where he went on abusing children.

It should be said that Ratzinger approved Hullermann’s initial transfer to Munich for treatment, but not his transfer to work in a new parish (this was the decision of his deputy, Vicar General Gerhard Gruber). But, as Gawthrop’s fictional prosecutor asks Ratzinger, “does this fact absolve you of responsibility? … Why, as Cardinal of Munich, did you approve Father Hullermann’s transfer to your jurisdiction, rather than defrocking him? Why, when you knew that he was a serial abuser? When you should have foreseen that, should he continue his ministry, there was a strong possibility—indeed a likelihood—that he would abuse again, as subsequently proved to be the case? Why did you allow the vicar general to determine Father Hullermann’s future, instead of taking the file yourself, thus failing to protect the young and innocent in your archdiocese? Why, Your Holiness? Why?”

Second, in May 2004, Cardinal Bernard Law fled Boston for Rome hours before he was to be served with a subpoena to come before a grand jury regarding his shielding of about 250 church-based child abusers. In Rome, Pope John Paul II gave him what Gawthrop calls “a plum assignment.” Gawthrop quotes Christopher Hitchens: “It is obvious that Cardinal Law could not have made his escape or been given asylum without the approval of the then-pontiff and of his most trusted deputy in the matter of child-rape damage control, then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.”

This is not even nearly to exhaust the list. In short, Joseph Ratzinger was directly culpable for protecting the vilest of criminals, and his actions and inactions, as a matter not of polemical assertion but simply of undeniable, on-the-record fact, led to the rape of children. Even if a case cannot be made that Ratzinger should be prosecuted under international law, there is no denying that he acted in a negligent and repugnant manner, nor that he was morally complicit in the widespread rape of children and the cover-up of these crimes. And this man, we are supposed to believe, was appointed by God? What a strange and horrid deity this God must be!

The fundamental problems remain: Canon Law supremacy is still insisted upon, confidentiality (just not absolute secrecy) is encouraged, there is still no rigorous investigatory process or serious punishment under Canon Law, and there is still no mandatory reporting of child sex abuse cases to the civil authorities.

Francis, the not-so-progressive Pope

The details of Robertson’s case for the Vatican and Joseph Ratzinger’s liability for this disgrace are too many and various to discuss here. I simply note that his case is compelling and legally meticulous as far as I can tell. Instead, I reiterate Robertson’s call for the CDF archives to be opened and comprehensively investigated to establish everything that happened under Ratzinger’s (and others’) watch and his related call for the Holy See to relinquish its claim to statehood, a claim Robertson shows to be legally spurious and one which allows it power and protection denied to every other religion on the planet, including privileged access at the United Nations to push its narrow theological agenda. (It also stems from a grubby little deal with Italian fascism.)

I suspect, alas, that there is little chance of the Church giving up such power voluntarily, in the name of decency and reason. Fine. It should be thrown out of the club of states and its status at the UN as a permanent observer state should be revoked, without ceremony or compunction. It should also be forced to open its archives to scrutiny. But all this, too, is unlikely to happen: a shameful reminder of international pusillanimity in the face of faith.

And what of Ratzinger’s successor, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis? Gawthrop offers a wish list at the end of his book, published in 2013, for what he hopes the new Pope might do. Most of his wish list has not been achieved. Indeed, very little real change has happened under Bergoglio. He is slightly more progressive, at least on the surface. But underneath his kindlier, people-oriented façade, Bergoglio is more or less the same as Ratzinger.

I emailed Gawthrop, interested in his views on how Bergoglio has done as Pope. He is not impressed. Bergoglio’s early, seemingly liberal statements have proven hollow, revealing the crusty conservative underneath: homosexuality is still an abomination, the ordination of women is still a heinous offense, and abortion is still a great evil.

On child sex abuse, Bergoglio has recently announced plans for the reform of church bureaucracy. In 2019, he lifted the pontifical secrecy requirement imposed on child sex abuse cases. But this is all far too little, far too late. The fundamental problems remain: Canon Law supremacy is still insisted upon, confidentiality (just not absolute secrecy) is encouraged, there is still no rigorous investigatory process or serious punishment under Canon Law, and there is still no mandatory reporting of child sex abuse cases to the civil authorities. Under Bergoglio, then, the Church is still operating a parallel and secretive legal system to deal with what are considered serious crimes under most national law codes. And, of course, the CDF archives have not been opened, meaning that the full story of the Church’s, and Joseph Ratzinger’s, response to child sex abuse among its priests is still unknown. Why, if there is nothing to hide, is the Church still so defensive?

Bergoglio’s reforms, in short, mean nothing: they are mere tinkering. As Gawthrop told me:

“What it comes down to is this: Pope Francis is a company man. He will always project an appealing image to the public and his flock, but he will not take action to alter the Church and its workings to a degree that would weaken the institution in the eyes of the curia [the central government of the Church]. And this, in many ways, makes him no different than Pope Benedict.”

Haul him to the Hague

And so we return to Joseph Ratzinger. What are the prospects of bringing him to justice? It is almost certainly too late to put Ratzinger in the dock now. He will likely live out the rest of his life in the peaceful environs of the Vatican and be mourned with nauseating sweetness and conformity when he dies.

One of the great radical projects of the twenty-first century is, or should be, the establishment of a universally applicable international legal system, whereby heads of states and popes are not immune from arrest and prosecution (the atrocities currently being committed by Russia in Ukraine have shown the urgency of such a project). As Robertson puts it:

“There is a strong moral case for the movement of international law from a set of rules for diplomatic expediency to a system of global justice based on norms that are not only objectively defined but also objectively determined, free from political pressure.”

That is, nobody should be above the law, whether or not they happen to hold great office or be believed by a billion or so people to represent God on Earth. The case of Joseph Ratzinger is a shameful moment for this movement: he has gotten away with it. Some might say that, as an old man nearing the end, he should be left in peace. Indeed, Reuters reported a Church source in 2013 saying as such: that Benedict should have a “dignified existence” in his last years. How cruel, some might say, for me to advocate the arrest and prosecution of an ailing old man. I don’t want to simply say that this is nothing more than idiotic special pleading, though it is that, so let me inform any such dissenters that last year, a 100-year-old SS guard was hauled into a German court for his role in Nazi crimes. If ancient fascists shouldn’t be left in peace, why should ancient pedophile-enabling popes?

Undoubtedly one of the most loathsome men currently alive, Ratzinger’s misogyny, homophobia, and dogmatic fanaticism (think, for example, of his opposition to condoms in AIDS-ravaged Africa) have immiserated thousands, if not millions, of his fellow humans—and they are his fellows, for he is just that: a man. Add to that his culpability in the world’s largest system of child sex abuse and his direct moral responsibility for the rape of children, and we have not just one of the most loathsome men in the world, but a true monster. It is a sickening thought that, like the murderous war criminal Henry Kissinger, this monster will almost certainly not face justice in his lifetime.

And this, finally, is why, despite my freely admitted hatred of the man, I do not desire the death of Joseph Ratzinger. I want him to live, so as to prolong the period of time in which he might, just, be held accountable. This is the slimmest of hopes, I know. Nevertheless, I wish Joseph Ratzinger a long life yet, for it would be a shame if he died without finally being hauled into the Hague.

Daniel James Sharp

Daniel James Sharp is an independent writer and Deputy Editor of Areo Magazine. He is currently working on a book about Christopher Hitchens for Pitchstone Publishing. He lives in Fife, Scotland.