The lying-in-state of former Pope Benedict XVI, who died Saturday at the age of 95, began Monday in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City ahead of his funeral later this week.
Benedict, who was the first pontiff in almost 600 years to resign his position, rather than hold office for life, passed away on December 31 at a monastery in Vatican City, according to a statement from the Vatican. He was elected Pope in April 2005, following John Paul II’s death.
In what is normal practice for an ascending Pontiff, Benedict wrote what was meant to be his testamentary “final letter”– which has now been made public upon his death– on August 29, 2006.
In the letter containing the pope’s final words, Benedict spoke of the “many reasons” he had to be thankful for his life. He thanked God for guiding him “well” throughout life. He also expressed gratitude to his parents who he said gave him “life in a difficult time.”
But he also asked for forgiveness for numerous things. While this also may be normal practice, in the case of Benedict it may be more resonant, as he proved to be a controversial Pope, not only because he resigned, but principally for the way that he handled the scandal of pedophilia that has roiled the Catholic Church for decades now, while Cardinal and later as Pope.
The clerical sex abuse scandal broke under Pope John Paul II in the years that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — who would later become Pope Benedict XVI — headed the Vatican’s doctrinal office, which handled the cases of priests accused of abusing children.
Presented with case files, Cardinal Ratzinger sometimes set disciplinary measures in motion, even having accused priests defrocked. But other times, the record shows, he took the side of the accused priests and failed to listen to the victims or their warnings that an abuser could violate more young people.
When Cardinal Ratzinger became pope, the scandal exploded publicly throughout the global church. It continues to reverberate, causing some to lose faith and presenting challenges for the church’s current leadership.
During his time as pope, Benedict’s efforts to rid the church of what he called “filth” went further than those of John Paul II, but he was reluctant to hold bishops accountable for shuffling abusive priests from assignment to assignment, angering survivors and advocates.
Benedict also did little to soften the Vatican’s ossified position on abortion and homosexuality. His legacy is disputed and his resignation has been connected to the Vatican’s internal opposition to his decisions.
As late as April 2019—6 years after his resignation–Benedict tried to justify the sex abuse crisis by blaming it in part, on the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the liberalization of the church’s moral teachings, rather than blaming the individuals who perpetrated the abuse.
Benedict himself was swept up in the scandal after the release of a report in January 2022 that had been commissioned by the Roman Catholic Church in Munich to investigate the archdiocese’s handling of sexual abuse from 1945 to 2019.
The report claimed that Benedict had mishandled four cases decades earlier involving the sexual abuse of minors while he was an archbishop in Germany. It also accused him of having misled investigators in his written answers. Two weeks after the report was released, Benedict acknowledged that “abuses and errors” had been made. He asked for forgiveness but denied any misconduct.
In January 2020, Benedict was forced to distance himself from a book widely seen as undercutting Francis as he considered whether to allow married men to become priests in certain cases. The book, “From the Depths of Our Hearts,” argued in favor of the centuries-old tradition of priestly celibacy within the Catholic Church. Benedict was originally listed as co-author, but later clarified he had only contributed one section of the text.
In the 2006 testamentary letter, the former pope asked “sincerely” for “forgiveness” for those he “wronged in any way”. In the closing words, the former pontiff asked “humbly,” despite all his “sins and shortcomings,” that he be welcomed by God into heaven.
There is no suggestion that his request for forgiveness in his final letter relates to the Catholic Church’s handling of sexual abuse accusations against priests. Indeed, in a separate letter published by the Vatican in February 2022, Benedict issued a general apology to survivors of abuse, writing: “Once again I can only express to all the victims of sexual abuse my profound shame, my deep sorrow and my heartfelt request for forgiveness,” but he admitted to no personal or specific wrongdoing.
Survivors and victims groups said they have mixed feelings about his legacy. Anne Barrett Doyle, a co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a victims advocacy and research group, said in a statement that Benedict would be “remembered chiefly for his failure to achieve what should have been his job one: to rectify the incalculable harm done to the hundreds of thousands of children sexually abused by Catholic priests.”
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