Munich prosecutors sent child abuse complaint linked to Pope Benedict

Investigators link four cases in clerical sexual abuse report to former pope

Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI has been named by Munich investigators as a potential accessory to child abuse in a file made available to state prosecutors, The Irish Times has learned.

Last week a law firm commissioned by the archdiocese of Munich and Freising to study its archives presented a report flagging 497 cases of clerical sexual abuse and 67 alleged perpetrators.

The investigators highlighted four cases of abusing priests during the 94-year-old’s term as archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982. In 82 pages of written testimony, responding to investigators’ questions, Benedict denied knowing the priests were abusers and dismissed investigators’ claims his actions – or inaction – as archbishop contributed to abuse.

He admits attending a diocesan meeting in January 1980 that discussed the transfer of a priest to Munich for psychotherapy, contrary to previous denials, but insists no details were discussed of the priest’s history of abuse of teenage boys.


The Munich law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl, commissioned by the Munich archdiocese for the investigation, said last week it had forwarded to the Munich state prosecutor 42 cases it felt justified closer examination.

The law firm has declined to comment further on the cases. The Munich state prosecutor said it would request further information should “suspicions arise regarding a possibly criminally relevant behaviour of church leaders”.

Bringing such files to a prosecutor’s attention does not mean a criminal charge, much less a conviction, will follow.

Preliminary investigation

However, German law obliges public prosecutors to examine all cases passed on to it involving rape and other sexual offences.

In the case of the former pope, a preliminary investigation into possible indictable offence is likely to focus at first on whether the statute of limitations has expired on any possible crimes.

A statute of limitations of 20 years applies both to perpetrators of serious sex crimes and accessories.

One legal source in Munich said it was possible too much time has elapsed to investigate. The investigation into Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger, as he was then, covered his four years in Munich before he left for Rome in 1982.

Another source says complicating factors may mean a closer examination of the file is necessary. A perpetrator priest, even one appointed in the 1980s, may continue to abuse victims over several subsequent decades. And, in the case of all sexual offences, the statute of limitations under German law only begins when a victim turns 30. If a suspect is interviewed by police shortly before the statute of limitations elapses, the clock is set back to zero.

If prosecutors find any indications that crimes took place, and that the statute of limitations has not elapsed, they are obliged to investigate.

A ruling by the German constitutional court, allowing the statute of limitations to be reset in serious cases, was last year applied to allow prosecutions in high-profile cum-ex tax fraud cases.

As for canon law, the Munich archdiocese said it had no competence under internal church rules to investigate its former Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger.

His papal successor, Pope Francis, changed canon law to allow for penal processes against diocesan bishops whose mismanagement of abuse allegations caused harm to victims. The process against such a person is conducted by the appropriate dicastery, such as the German Bishops' Conference.

"But the Episcopal conferences in each region have no power of censure over an individual bishop," said Dr Mary McAleese, a canon lawyer and former Irish president. "In fact the conferences have very little collective hard power . . . but soft power could initiate informal investigations and reports."

The Germany Bishops' Conference said it is studying the 1,900-page Munich report before it decides what action, if any, it will take against the former pope.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin