German canon lawyer: wait for abuse report before laying blame

MUNICH — As Germans await the publication of a report on how the leaders of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising have handled historical abuse cases, a canon lawyer casts doubt on the charges leveled against the pope in the Benedict XVI retreat regarding possible negligence.

Helmuth Pree, a retired university professor, wrote in the weekly Die Zeit that the presumption of innocence must also apply to a pope. German Catholic news agency KNA reported that he was responding to media coverage of information believed to be in the abuse report, which is due to be released on January 20.

Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger – now retired from Pope Benedict XVI – led the Archdiocese of Munich from 1977 to 1981.

German newspaper Bild reported that the retired pope provided detailed answers – totaling 82 pages – to lawyers’ questions regarding sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Munich.

“He welcomes the reassessment in Munich as well as the publication of the report,” the newspaper quoted Archbishop Georg Gänswein as saying. The archbishop said the former pope had taken “the plight of victims of abuse very much to heart”.

KNA reported that Pree expressed surprise at media coverage of the case in early January. He criticized the assessments that canon law professors Norbert Lüdecke and Bernhard Anuth had given in a joint interview. The two church law experts say Ratzinger breached his duty in 1980 by failing to inform the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith after the archdiocese took in a priest who had committed abuses in the diocese from Essen.

Pree wrote that it had “not been established to date” whether such an obligation to inform the Vatican actually existed. The corresponding administrative regulation of 1962 was a “secret decree” which was “never properly announced”.

Pree added: “There is no evidence that the instruction was known in Munich.” For this reason, “it must be explained why Cardinal Ratzinger, of all people, could have known this in 1980”.

Pree said that to arrive at a “possibly more complete and objective assessment,” the public should wait for the conclusions of the January 20 report into abuses by a Munich law firm.

The Archdiocese of Munich said it would publicly respond to the report on January 27.

Meanwhile, criminologist Christian Pfeiffer has called on German prosecutors to become more active in tackling church abuse cases. He said the judiciary had “treated churches the same way one enters a church – quietly, respectfully, on tiptoe. This light-hearted march must stop,” Pfeiffer wrote in a guest comment for Die Zeit newspaper.

He asked why prosecutors had not launched investigations against dioceses and why reports suggesting that records had been shredded were not triggering searches.

Pfeiffer also accused the German bishops’ conference and its former president, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, of “preventing rather than allowing” the investigation into the abuses over the years.

Conditions in the church remained “unacceptable in a constitutional state,” Pfeiffer continued, citing “authoritarian power structures that allow cover-ups” and “arrogant bishops who only feel responsible to the pope.”

The church was committed to punishing abuse through canon law and also to enforce state criminal laws, Pfeiffer said. He said the showdown, over whether a prosecutor would be able to work his way up to the bishop’s ‘poison cabinets’ containing sensitive information in the abuse cases, hadn’t had place.