Benedict XVI: a decade of retirement troubled by the shadow of abuse scandals | International | The USA Print

Benedict XVI during his last public audience in 2009, at the Vatican.
Benedict XVI during his last public audience in 2009, at the Vatican.Europe Press

That February 2013 in which he became the first modern pope to renounce his pontificate, Benedict XVI left the Vatican walls aboard a helicopter. With those images for history flying over the Eternal City, he closed almost eight years of his pontificate. He moved to the town of Castel Gandolfo, the traditional summer residence of the popes, to spend the time of the conclave there, with the intention of not interfering in any way in the choice of his successor. After the white smoke with which the Church presented Pope Francis as its new leader, Joseph Ratzinger returned to the Vatican. From that moment he lived in the Mater Ecclesiae convent, a small building surrounded by gardens inside Vatican City, where he died this Saturday.

During his years in the convent he was accompanied by his personal secretary Georg Gänswein and a group of four consecrated lay women belonging to the Memores Domini religious association who assisted him in daily life. During this time his health, due to his advanced age, has been fragile but his mind has always worked well, as he has shown on several occasions and as Gänswein has explained. His secretary has pointed out in different interventions that the pope emeritus spent his retirement years praying, listening to music, studying and reading.

Benedict XVI, flanked by his personal secretary Georg Gänswein, on February 15, 2013 at the Vatican. Photo: GETTY IMAGES | Video: EPV

“The Lord calls me to ‘climb up the mountain,’ to dedicate myself even more to prayer and meditation,” he said shortly after announcing his resignation. “But this does not mean abandoning the Church, on the contrary, if God asks me it is precisely so that I can continue to serve it with the same dedication and love with which I have tried to do so far, but in a way more appropriate to my age and my strength,” he added.

In recent years Ratzinger continued to receive visits. One of the most recent was on December 1, when he met with the two recipients of this year’s Ratzinger Prize, which Pope Francis had previously awarded them. In the photos published on the website of the Vatican Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI Foundation, the pope emeritus can be seen sitting in an armchair, in the company of the two winners, the French biblical scholar Michel Fédou and the Jewish jurist Joseph Halevi Horowitz Weiler, together the president of the foundation, the former Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, and Gänswein.

Pope Francis’ statements in which he asked to pray for the emeritus immediately suggested a worsening of Ratzinger’s health conditions. The coexistence between the two pontiffs, since Benedict XVI stepped aside, was very good.

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Francisco has confessed in several interviews that he visited Ratzinger frequently. In one of them, the pontiff explained how Benedict XVI spent his days: “He lives in contemplation… He has a good mood, he is lucid, very alive, he speaks softly but he follows the conversation. He admires his intelligence. He is a great ”. In another talk with the Televisa-Univisión channel last summer, the Argentine pontiff also praised the pope emeritus: “When I go to see him, he looks at me with those bright eyes, always smiling. He speaks very softly and it is not easy to understand him, sometimes Georg Gänswein has to come, who understands him well. He is supporting the Church with his goodness since his retirement ”.

As far as is known, Benedict XVI abandoned his refuge in the Vatican on very few occasions. The last time he was known was in 2020, when he traveled to Germany for a few days to visit his brother, Georg Ratzinger, who was seriously ill at the time and died shortly after.

A discreet profile

However, Ratzinger’s retirement was not as smooth as one might expect. Although he always kept a discreet profile, the long shadow of those known as “crows” —the members or collaborators of the curia implicated in the scandals and power struggles in the Vatican— and the cases of abuse that surrounded his pontificate also followed him even after having resigned.

This thorny question ended up splashing him and he was forced to ask for forgiveness in the twilight of his life. Earlier this year the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising released a compelling 1,700-page report collecting evidence of 497 cases of abuse committed between 1945 and 2019 by at least 235 perpetrators, including 173 priests. Investigators accused the emeritus pope of knowing and failing to act on four of those cases while he was archbishop of that archdiocese, between 1977 and 1982, since the alleged abusers, like many others, were simply transferred to other dioceses. Even the president of the German Bishops’ Conference, Georg Bätzing, encouraged him to apologize and accept the cover-up of the cases.

Ratzinger categorically denied these accusations in a letter in which he also apologized to the victims of sexual abuse in the Church, for which he said he felt “deep shame and pain.” He also recalled his numerous encounters with abuse victims on his world travels as pontiff.

Benedict XVI was the first pope to openly address the issue of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. And he left a maxim for history that Francis has taken as a guide: “Forgiveness is not a substitute for justice.” Already in his time at the helm of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the important Vatican body that manages matters related to these cases, from 1981 to 2005, when the issue was barely discussed outside the Vatican walls, Ratzinger tried to reform canon law to more harshly punish these crimes. In 2001, during the last years of Wojtyla’s pontificate, he succeeded, with the document Of delictis gravioribusabout the most serious crimes against morality. In 2010, already as pontiff, he reinforced this document, including, among other things, provisions to assist victims and to train clergy to act in these cases, protecting those affected and applying canon law.

A few years ago, in 2019, Ratzinger broke the silence that had marked his retirement, with a document published by surprise in a German clergy magazine entitled Churches and sexual abuse. In the text, the emeritus pontiff linked this scourge to a supposed moral collapse of societies, especially from the 1960s onwards. He pointed, in fact, to May 1968, something that caused a stir, since he pointed out that among the causes fought for in that historical moment were “total sexual freedom, one that no longer had norms.” And he related this fact to “that mental collapse.”

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