Former pope Benedict XVI knowingly failed to take action to stop four priests accused of child sex abuse in Munich in the 1980s, according to a damning independent report published Thursday that risks shattering the ex-pontiff's reputation.
The report by law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl (WSW) was commissioned by the archdiocese of Munich and Freising to examine how abuse cases were dealt with between 1945 and 2019.
Ex-pope Benedict -- whose civilian name is Josef Ratzinger -- was the archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982.
Benedict's spokesman Georg Gaenswein said the ex-pontiff had responded by expressing "shock and shame at the abuse of minors committed by clerics" but must examine the text, of which he had no knowledge until this afternoon.
Benedict, 94 -- whose civilian name is Josef Ratzinger -- in 2013 became the first pope to step down from the role in 600 years and now lives a secluded life in a former convent inside the grounds of the Vatican.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni also said it intended to examine the report, "the contents of which are not currently known".
Two of the cases where Benedict allegedly failed to act involved clergymen who had committed several proven acts of abuse but were allowed to continue with pastoral duties, according to WSW lawyer Martin Pusch.
In one case, a now notorious paedophile priest named Peter Hullermann was transferred to Munich from Essen in western Germany where he had been accused of abusing an 11-year-old boy.
Hullermann was reassigned to pastoral duties despite his history and continued to reoffend for many years.
The lawyers said that "to our surprise", Benedict had denied attending the meeting in 1980 at which the decision was made to admit Hullermann, despite being quoted directly in the minutes of the meeting.
Any interest in the abuse victims was "not recognisable" in Benedict, Pusch said.
He also said Benedict had initially shown a "defensive attitude" when responding to questions for the investigation. However, he later changed his stance and gave a detailed written statement.
The report found indications of sexually abusive behaviour in 235 people it investigated, including 173 priests. There were a total of at least 497 victims.
The lawyers also accused Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the current archbishop of Munich and Freising, of failing to act in two cases of suspected abuse.
Marx had last year offered Pope Francis his resignation over the church's "institutional and systemic failure" in its handling of child sex abuse scandals.
However, Pope Francis rejected his offer, urging the cardinal known for his reforms to stay and help shape change in the Catholic Church.
Marx on Thursday apologised to the victims on behalf of the archdiocese, which will respond in detail next week, and also said he was "shocked and ashamed" by the findings.
- 'Frightening insights' -
The reformist Catholic group "Wir sind Kirche" (We are Church) said the report offered "frightening insights into the lack of sense of responsibility of clerical office holders".
It called on Benedict to "face up to his ecclesiastical and moral responsibility instead of making more and more denials that are not very credible".
The SNAP abuse survivors' network went further: "True action could come in the form of admission from Pope Benedict XVI and for him to relinquish his honor as pope emeritus. That could start the act of contrition."
The Catholic Church has been embroiled in a series of sexual abuse scandals in countries around the world, including Australia, Chile, France, Ireland and the United States.
In Germany, a string of reports in recent years have exposed widespread abuse of children by clergymen.
A study commissioned by the German Bishops' Conference in 2018 concluded that 1,670 clergymen in the country had committed some form of sexual attack against 3,677 minors between 1946 and 2014.
However, the real number of victims is thought to be much higher.
Another report published last year exposed the scope of abuse committed by priests in Germany's top diocese of Cologne.
The abuse scandal has thwarted the Catholic Church's efforts to spearhead broad reforms in Germany.
Payouts for victims of abuse were increased in 2020 to up to 50,000 euros ($56,700), from around 5,000 euros previously, but campaigners say the sum is still inadequate.
Matthias Katsch, a spokesman for the Eckiger Tisch victims' group, called the report "shocking".
It was "impressive and very moving" to see the lawyers "take apart this edifice of lies that has been erected to protect Benedict XVI", he said.
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