An ugly scene in Rome played out in January 897. In a wild political stunt to reverse the appointments, ordinations, and papacy of his seven-months deceased successor, Pope Formosus, Pope Stephen VI had Formosus’ body exhumed, dressed in papal robes, and propped up in the Basilica of St. John Lateran to “stand trial” before a synod of repulsed Roman clergy.
He accused Formosus’ rotting corpse of being an imposter pope, together with other charges laid against him during the 15-day papacy of Boniface VI (the pope between Formosus and Stephen) who had died suddenly. Though a deacon was appointed to speak for Formosus, the dead man was found guilty on all charges. His papacy was declared null and void, the fingers he used to hold the Blessed Sacrament were chopped off, the rich garments were ripped from the stiff limbs, and the body was dumped into the Tiber.
This travesty occurred in a time of tremendous political upheaval in Italy when popes were flying through the Chair of Peter in rapid succession based on which powers they were allied to. Stephen VI himself was only pope a few months before his enemies arranged for him to be imprisoned after the outrage of the Cadaver Synod. In prison, he was promptly strangled to death. While all this may be disturbing to consider as part of the history of our Church, what is even more disturbing is how much ugliness occurs today behind closed doors in the Vatican, without the “benefit” of the public horror of a trial like Formosus’.
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The sexual abuse crisis that has infected the Church is an epicenter of disturbance, with new developments this month that cast a dismal light on the generally beloved and widely respected Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Last Thursday, a long-awaited 1,900-page report dropped from the German law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl regarding cases of sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising between 1945 and 2019 and whether the officials of the Catholic Church handled them properly.
The report alleges that there were four cases discovered in which the former Pope Benedict XVI, during his tenure as Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger between 1977 and 1982, failed to act to prevent predatory priests from reassignment—priests who were accused and even convicted of sexual abuse. Though Benedict XVI has denied any accusation as “barely credible,” he has in the last few days corrected—perhaps confessed—that he was indeed present at a 1980 meeting where an abusive priest, Fr. Peter Hullermann, was discussed and not removed from ministry. The original error about Benedict’s attendance was reported, with apologies, as due to an editing error in a document drafted to an independent investigation commissioned by the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising. (Hullermann continued to allegedly molest children until his removal in 2010.)
In 2013, Pope Benedict XVI became the first pope to resign from the papacy in 600 years. Now 94 years old, he lives in seclusion in the Vatican. It may be difficult to accept that these allegations are true, especially since Pope Emeritus Benedict’s record of stalwart tradition and rock-solid theology do not support that he would be indifferent to, let alone complicit in, such evil. But he is, notwithstanding, a man subject to flaw and failure and also to the pressures of a hierarchy that is rife with corruption.
While Cardinal Ratzinger and then Pope Benedict XVI was, and still is, a heavyweight champion of Church teaching, he was also known to have a rather light hand in suppressing malfeasance. From his frustrated attempts to deal with Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado to his fumbling over Theodore McCarrick’s malicious influence, delivering reprimand or repercussion was not his strong suit. Even his resignation in the maelstrom of the Vati-Leaks scandal and the “St. Gallen Mafia” may well indicate his reluctance, whether because of character or constitution, to openly condemn and actively eradicate depravity.
The Church stands in need of a scouring still. Since his resignation, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke of “divisions in the ecclesial body which besmirch the face of the Church,” echoing an earlier reference of his to the “filth” in the Church. Many have interpreted this filth as pertaining to the appalling clerical sex abuse scandals. Human society, and even the Catholic Church, has the stain of sexual sins on its hands, and the rise of worldwide acceptance of homosexual behavior isn’t helping matters (especially among the German clergy).
Christ’s Church is the solution, the cure; but first, even she must be cleansed, and unfortunately there may be need for the process to begin in Rome. Sexual immorality will always happen, but it must never happen at the heart of the One, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Within the sanctum sanctorum, there can be no hesitation concerning sexual crimes, tolerance of foppishness, or acceptance of aberrant orientations.
If indeed Benedict XVI is guilty of inaction when he served as archbishop, or pope for that matter, Catholics must stand firm in the stance against sexual abuse, as much as any might wish to find some defense for a beloved pope. Benedict XVI was the head of the Church and Joseph Ratzinger was the head of an archdiocese, and as such, he was responsible in a tremendous and even terrible way for the wellbeing of souls. And just because he was a priest and a pope who stood by the teachings of the Church in words, if his actions did not have the same tenor then he is, sad to say, gravely at fault and must be judged accordingly.
While sexual abuse can have no quarter whatsoever, there is something to acknowledge about the almost unimaginable naïveté of the pre-Boston world. This is not to proffer an excuse for such a manifest evil as harming children, for it is inherently inexcusable. But there is a strange psychological or cultural haze that may have shrouded the judgment of many men who were trying to do what they thought was right but was truly wrong. The knowledge of this particular vice has increased tremendously, and now we know that people who commit such crimes due to perverse proclivity cannot be simply corrected or warned. They require sustained help and even treatment. But the sensitivity to this was not the same 40 years ago.
Along this line of consideration, Pope Emeritus Benedict might seem like he can’t be fully as guilty of this as many might make him out to be. He is from an older world of what may have been like an old-boys clerical club, where rehabilitation or therapy was considered a fait accompli, or that forgiveness was somehow finalizing, or even that the Church deserved more protection than her members. Many criminally erring bishops of that era must have operated under this ignorance, which again isn’t an excuse for their errors, but it may be an explanation, however unsatisfying or maddening. Lives have been destroyed in the wake of their decisions, and that must also be acknowledged and never forgotten.
In any case, no matter what Benedict XVI may or may not be guilty of, the Church must, together with the rest of the world, accept that there are degrees of error and hold fast to objective moral truth, especially when dragging old popes to the pillory, dead or alive. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is not dead as Pope Formosus was when he was called to answer for crime, but he is certainly and suddenly in a deadly pair of crosshairs, which must be taken seriously if Catholics hope to cleanse the Church of the filth that he himself bemoaned. Sexual activity, and certainly sexual abuse, in priests should be disqualifying, plain and simple. And such filthy matters, even if dated, should be brought to light if it helps prevent such evils from happening in the future.
Of course, the actions of Pope Stephen VI against the putrid remains of Pope Formosus are a far cry from these old accusations against Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, but the latter involves actions that are potentially far more grievous. Political machinations don’t hold much of a candle to child molestation. The Church and its members must be merciful, true, so that we as a Church may obtain God’s mercy; but that mercy shouldn’t bar Catholics from putting the pope on the pillory for the sake of dispelling the smoke of Satan from Rome and from our churches. We pray for all abuse victims, for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and for the Church.