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Lawsuit Against Former Pope Benedict in Abuse Scandal

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. may have to stand trial in a secular court over an abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.

von Marcus Bensmann , Justus von Daniels , Gabriela Keller

Pope Benedict in Bavaria - Freising
Pope Benedict XVI walks past altar boys during a service at Freising Cathedral on Thursday (Sept. 14, 2006). The pontiff visited his native Bavaria from September 09 to 14, 2006. Photo: Daniel Karmann dpa

According to an exclusive report published by CORRECTIV, the weekly newspaper Zeit and public broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk, a lawyer representing an abuse victim from Bavaria filed a lawsuit last weekend in the Traunstein Regional Court against Peter H., a former Catholic priest, as well as several church officials and institutions, including Cardinal Friedrich Wetter, the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, represented by Vicar General Christoph Klingan and former Pope Benedict XVI. 

In the 1990s, then-priest Peter H. allegedly sexually abused several children and youth in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, including the plaintiff. Senior church officials affiliated with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the time accepted the pedophile priest Peter H. in 1980 into the archdiocese and didn’t prevent his contact with young people, even though H. had already been discovered committing sexual assault in the city of Essen on several occasions. At the time, a psychiatrist diagnosed H. with a “basic narcissistic disorder with pederasty and exhibitionism.” In 1986, H. was sentenced to probation for the abuse of several juveniles, but he managed to keep his job. 

Because the statute of limitations has passed for most of the acts of abuse, the victim’s lawyer, Berlin criminal defense attorney Andreas Schulz, is resorting to a legal trick: He has filed an action for a declaratory judgement. Although it may not result in criminal prosecution, it could possibly deliver a declaration of the church’s guilt. His client is hoping that a secular court will determine that H., who was a priest at the time, sexually assaulted him and is therefore “obligated to compensate him for the damage,” according to the 69-page complaint, which has been obtained by CORRECTIV, Zeit and Bayerischer Rundfunk. 

“His aim is also to have a secular court determine culpability for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who agreed to reinstate priest H. in his parish work from his position of responsibility, even though the archdiocese of Munich and Freising were aware of H.’s sexual assaults.” The complaint alleges that Ratzinger, as cardinal, “had knowledge of all the circumstances and, at the very least, countenanced the fact that this priest was a repeat offender.” 

The evidence is overwhelming in the case of Peter H. Internal church proceedings established the priest’s culpability in 2016. According to an extrajudicial decree, those proceedings found that Peter H. sexually abused several teenagers in the 1990s, including the current plaintiff. The decree also discusses a breach of duty by the church superiors responsible at the time. A January 2022 report on abuse in the Munich diocese also recognized the shared culpability of church superiors within the archdiocese. The plaintiff is using the decree and the January abuse report as the basis for taking action against the former pope, as well as against Cardinal Friedrich Wetter, his successor as archbishop in Munich. 

The question as to whether the pope emeritus can be held responsible for the assaults is disputed. Experts believe the lawsuit has a chance if the church refrains from invoking the statute of limitations, as it has already done in the internal church proceedings. Wetter told CORRECTIV, Zeit and Bayerischer Rundfunk that he did not intend to file a petition invoking the statute of limitations. A spokesperson for the Archdiocesan Ordinariate in Munich asked for understanding “that the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising does not comment on ongoing legal proceedings.” The pope  emeritus had not responded to a request for comment by the time our article went to press. Nor did former priest Peter. H. 

If the lawsuit is successful, the church would not be ordered to pay damages, but it could come under further pressure to reconsider its stance on paying compensation to victims of abuse.

You can read the full research on the lawsuit in German at at this link.