The 265th pope of the Catholic Church was a hard-line conservative who tried to root out corruption and abuse—but retreated from the battle when it mattered most.
With 1.3 billion followers, the Roman Catholic Church is the world’s largest organization. Islam has 1.97 billion adherents but no comparable infrastructure. Google has greater reach—in cyberspace.
The Church of Rome has a vast network of parishes, schools, colleges, hospitals, and missions. The governing of this global operation in the 107-acre Vatican City has become a narrative of lengthening scandals in recent decades. Pope Benedict XVI, a pivotal figure in this story, wanted national churches in lockstep obedience to Rome on moral teaching.
In 2013, after eight years in the Apostolic Palace, the German-born Joseph Ratzinger became the first Supreme Pontiff in 600 years to retire. The most powerful and controversial theologian of his era became emeritus pope for nine years, until his death at 95 on New Year’s Eve, 2022.
Benedict’s resignation may be his lasting achievement, liberating the papacy from service unto death as the realities of dementia, Parkinson’s, and other debilitating diseases loom over popes who live longer than their predecessors.
Benedict’s other major feat imposed a process over the Vatican Bank, a longtime sieve for money-laundering, for compliance with regulatory standards of international banking—a historic reform still ongoing.
But on the church’s greatest crisis— the long-running scandals of priests abusing children—his record offered hope, but ultimately foundered.
What explains the fate of Cardinal Ratzinger as Benedict XVI? How did a man of overarching moral certitude who targeted theologians’ academic freedom fail to halt the spiraling pedophilia crisis?
The answers, I believe, lie in the evolution of a puritanical mindset at odds with human freedom, and democratic ideals of justice.
In contrast, the Argentina-born Pope Francis emulates the now sainted Pope John XXIII, who summoned the reformist Second Vatican Council in 1962. Francis sees the sprawling church as “a field hospital” in need of “radical mercy.” Francis—who calls abortion “homicide”—warmly blesses pro-choice Democrats like President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, despite American bishops who would deny them communion at Mass.
Benedict, the fundamentalist, was a catalytic figure in a church now deeply divided, if not embattled, over his vision of guarding morals—most searingly expressed in a 1986 letter to the world’s bishops. As the chief Vatican theologian, he called homosexuality “an intrinsic moral evil.” Overnight he became a reviled figure to gay people and liberal Catholics, while in recent years lawmakers around the world have increasingly expanded human rights to LGBTQ citizens.
Pope Francis, meeting with a Chilean abuse survivor, Juan Carlos Cruz, who told him he was gay, replied, “God made you this way and He loves you, and the Pope loves you and you have to love yourself.”
Nevertheless, church teachings on sexual ethics, clerical celibacy, and whether women might be priests, on paper, maintain the imprint of John Paul and Benedict.
The reality, “the field hospital,” is where people live.
BENEDICT’S IRONIC LEGACY
A huge irony clouds Benedict’s legacy. The law-and-order cardinal, as pope, became a prisoner of indecision, unable to wield the enormous power of a sovereign monarch to root out internal rot, and punish cardinals and bishops who concealed child molesters (or were abusers themselves)—something Pope Francis would end up doing repeatedly.
As prefect of Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Ratzinger spent 27 years promoting John Paul II’s papacy as a citadel of unquestioned moral truth. In the majestic Palace of the Holy Office, where Galileo was convicted in 1633 for declaring that the Earth revolved around the sun, Ratzinger oversaw the CDF agenda of top-down truth, demanding “willful assent” from theologians and religious activists he and his staff investigated over issues like birth control, acceptance of gays and Liberation Theology, wreaking havoc on many careers and lives in the process.
By 2005, when John Paul II died, Ratzinger’s mood had darkened. As cardinals gathered for the conclave, his sermon scorned “a dictatorship of relativism… one that recognizes nothing as definitive and that has as its measure only the self and its desires…”
If denouncing feel-good secularism resonated with Princes of the Church, primed to select a new pope, Ratzinger stood for something more: combatting the scandal of clergy sex abusers that overshadowed John Paul’s final years.
In 2001, Ratzinger persuaded the pope to consolidate control in the C.D.F. for secret trials of pedophile priests, an issue most Vatican officials, wincing, wanted to avoid. In an ecclesiastical culture honeycombed with secrecy and deference to the hierarchs, Ratzinger showed courage. Leading the Stations of the Cross, in the Roman Coliseum, on Good Friday, 2005, he uttered a striking metaphor: “How much filth there is in the church, even among those who, in the priesthood, should show they belong entirely to Him.”
Catholic conservatives thrilled when Ratzinger first appeared on the balcony at St. Peter’s Basilica as Pope Benedict XVI.
Yet within a few years, Benedict was engulfed by media coverage of continuing revelations of clergy pedophiles, exposing his own negligence as a cardinal, allowing a cleric who molested deaf children in Milwaukee to retire rather than be defrocked. Alex Gibney powerfully captured these events in the 2012 film, Mea Maxima Culpa. Meanwhile, an Italian journalist broadcast stories quoting internal papal documents leaked by Benedict’s personal butler.
Weariness from the Vatileaks scandal showed in the pope’s face; in stepping down he paved the way for Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Francis, the first Latin American pope.
“A MEDIEVAL IDEA OF THE PAPACY”
The road that led to these tumultuous events began in Germany. Ratzinger as a youth in the Nazi darkness found light in a seminary, and with high scholarly skills advanced in post-war academia.
In the early 1960s, Hans Küng and Joseph Ratzinger were priests and theology colleagues at the University of Tübingen, one of Germany’s oldest universities in a medieval city of steep hills and cobbled streets. The polite, bookish Ratzinger was a familiar sight riding his bicycle in Tübingen, a cheerful if ascetic man who “did not even have a driver’s license,” as a retired professor would tell me.
Küng and Ratzinger were among the youngest, most progressive theologians chosen to advise bishops at Vatican II. John XXIII wanted to “open the windows of the church” to the outside world. Vatican II ended in 1965; the Mass changed from Latin to national languages. Church fathers called believers People of God, encouraging hopes of reform and human rights.
Back in Tübingen, the Swiss-born Küng and Ratzinger grew at odds over the sweeping theological debate. When student protesters disrupted his class in 1968, Ratzinger made an ideological shift to the right, and kept on in that direction. Küng became a critic of papal infallibility, the idea that the pope can never err on issues of dogma; he kept challenging Rome to open the windows to more freedom for theologians and greater internal justice.
Then, in 1979, Ratzinger, having gone from archbishop of Munich to a cardinal at the Holy Office, oversaw Vatican proceedings that revoked Küng’s teaching license as a theologian, a huge blow for a man who in many eyes symbolized the advances of Vatican II. The university gave Küng standing in another department. Küng became a popular speaker on global ethics. But the wounds hurt.
In 2012, when I interviewed Küng at Tübingen, the Benedict-led Vatican was getting media blowback for investigating the American women superiors of the major orders of nuns—sisters on the front lines of social justice—accused of being heretical feminists. My editors at GlobalPost and National Catholic Reporter called the series “A New Inquisition.”
The crackdown, I learned, was inspired by Cardinal Bernard Law, after resigning as the scandal-battered archbishop of Boston for recycling pedophiles, only to land a $144,000 a year pastorship at a great basilica in Rome, a lifeline from John Paul II maintained under Benedict. Law, who shunned journalists until his death in 2017, still had the power to ignite a Vatican campaign against liberal nuns—an inquisition Pope Francis would halt.
“You cannot deny that Joseph Ratzinger has faith,” said Küng, in a coat and tie, seated in his office, speaking in calm tones framed by blue twilight. “But he is absolutely against freedom. He wants obedience.” Ratzinger was “against the paradigm of Vatican II… He has a medieval idea of the papacy.”
“Many sisters are better educated and more courageous than a lot of the male clergy,” he said matter-of-factly. The Roman Curia “will try to condemn them.” Küng viewed the clergy abuse crisis and the attack on American nuns as symptoms of a pathological power structure. By his lights, the impact on church moral authority was a crisis rivaling Martin Luther’s revolt, which spurred the Protestant Reformation.
As prefect overseeing doctrine in the old palace of the Roman Inquisition, Ratzinger branched out in prosecuting theologians for straying from official teaching, notably Father Charles Curran, at Catholic University of America, for questioning the church’s stance opposing birth control (a position that 89 percent of Catholics do not support, according to ongoing opinion polls, such as one in 2016 taken by America, the Jesuit magazine). Küng likened Ratzinger to the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov—the sinister monk who tells Jesus the masses must be subdued by superstition for religion to maintain its power.
“You cannot be for human rights in society and not be for it in the church,” Küng told me, warming to his topic. “In Ireland, the prime minister is more outspoken than anyone”—referring to Enda Kenny’s blistering 2010 speech in the Dublin parliament attacking the Vatican for the rooted concealment of pedophiles. Ireland, an overwhelmingly Catholic nation, temporarily closed its embassy to the Holy See.
Regarding the investigation of American nuns, Küng said: “The [Roman] Curia realized that the practical life of nuns was different, and that was enough to persecute them. You go to Rome for a hearing and it’s a diktat—take it or leave it.” The nuns, however, were challenging the diktat with letters, documents, meetings, and grinding talks with the bishop-investigators.
Küng and Ratzinger personified the polarized camps of the post-Vatican II church; one side saw a church of rising aspirations in lay people, letting priests marry and women into ministry, a big tent inclusiveness; the Roman side wanted a return to deeper piety, a rules-based tradition that heeds the hierarchy on moral teachings like birth control, and homosexuality. Still, 64 percent of Catholics do not think same-sex intimacy is wrong, according to the 2016 America magazine poll.
Soon after becoming pope in 2005, Benedict invited Küng to Rome, a four-hour meeting marked by cordiality, two long-ago friends agreeing to disagree, otherwise seeking common ground. The honeymoon did not last long; Küng kept speaking out against the calcified Roman power structure until his retirement from academic life. He died last year, aged 93.
BENEDICT’S RETREAT INTO SILENCE
If the papal resignation and Vatican Bank reforms are Benedict’s major achievements, his struggle on the clergy abuse crisis failed as new scandals in Europe and America in 2010 saw a retreat into silence on that issue.
Benedict met with survivors on several occasions, but could not bring himself to oust many negligent or abusive bishops as he had done in prosecuting theologians, or the 2008 case against Father Roy Bourgeois, a courageous Maryknoll missionary who led demonstrations in Americus, Georgia, at the U.S. military’s School of the Americas—where many Latin American officers later linked to human rights atrocities received tactical training.
What was Bourgeois’ crime against Benedict’s Vatican? He participated in a ceremony ordaining a woman to the priesthood. The Vatican stripped him not just of his priesthood but excommunicated him from the church, denying him the legal right to his faith, a penalty more severe than that given most of the pedophiles.
In the most high-profile case that Ratzinger-cum-Benedict confronted, one that would make of him a Shakespearean tragic figure, the man of monastic temperament, fired by the ideal of chastity, and Christ as a purifying Savior, challenged a mammoth evil masked as virtue.
THE CORRUPT, ABUSIVE CATHOLIC CULT LEADER WHO BEDEVILED BENEDICT’S SEARCH FOR JUSTICE
In 2006, barely a year after becoming pope, Benedict banished Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legion of Christ religious order, to “a life of prayer and penitence.”
Born in Mexico, Maciel, 86, was lionized by many conservatives, who were shocked. The pope’s decision was devastating to the 500 seminarians and 2,500 Legionary priests, who had taken vows never to speak ill of Maciel, whom they were taught was a living saint. Maciel had used mind control tactics to shield himself from any scrutiny over the many years he kept abusing boys.
But Maciel’s problems had begun several years earlier.
In 1998, eight ex-Legionaries filed a canon law grievance in Ratzinger’s CDF tribunal, accusing Maciel of sexually assaulting them as teenage seminarians in Spain and in Rome, seeking his excommunication from the church. The canon law case came a year after the 1997 investigation of Maciel in The Hartford Courant—that Gerald Renner and I published, based on graphic accounts of the men, and letters to John Paul II— to which the Vatican did not respond. We expanded that reporting in Vows of Silence, published in March 2004.
Then-Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano—the most powerful man next to John Paul in the pope’s long decline from neurological disease—pressured Ratzinger to abort the case. Six years passed. In November 2004, Sodano orchestrated a lavish celebration of Maciel’s 60th anniversary as a priest. John Paul, who would die five months later, praised the Legionary, despite numerous media accounts on the accusations. Sodano had once told The New York Times Magazine that the Roman Curia “is a brotherhood.” Ratzinger after a quarter-century in that fraternity of ecclesiastical careerists saw Maciel as a looming disaster for whomever the next pope might be.
When ABC reporter Brian Ross in 2002 approached Ratzinger outside his Vatican residence, asking about Maciel, the cardinal slapped his hand, saying, “No! Come to me when the moment is given,” and got into a waiting limousine.
So it was in late 2004 when Ratzinger, avoiding the ceremony for Maciel, ordered a canon lawyer in his office, Msgr. Charles Scicluna, to interview Maciel’s victims and compile a report. Neither man, cardinal nor canonist, knew that Ratzinger within a few months would be pope.
Benedict’s 2006 order, ousting Maciel from active ministry, shocked a host of conservative Catholics, not least John Paul’s biographer George Weigel, who sanitized his abysmal record in responding to clergy sex abuse, and Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things magazine who had declared “for a moral certainty” that the long-standing accusations against Maciel were “scurrilous” and false.
Maciel had long courted potentates like Carlos Slim of Mexico (who aided The New York Times with a $250 million loan during the 2009 financial crisis) and William Casey, President Ronald Reagan’s CIA director who endowed a building on the order’s Cheshire, Connecticut campus.
Maciel was the greatest fundraiser of the post-war church, and with at least 80 child abuse victims, the greatest church criminal of those years. Pope Benedict took a bold step in taking him out, yet the more fascinating story is why the pope did not go the extra mile to confront the pathological mindset left behind among Legionaries trained to report on anyone who criticized Maciel or their superiors—spying rewarded as an act of faith.
The Legion responded to Benedict’s expulsion of Maciel with a bizarre media strategy, claiming obedience to the pope, while stating that Maciel accepted the decision “with tranquility of conscience”—never acknowledging that their founder had abused anyone. Sodano, ending his reign as Secretary of State, insisted that the papal communique praise the Legionaries of Christ—who for nine years had counter-attacked the victims on their website.
Maciel left Rome for Cotija de la Paz, Mexico, and a reunion with his 23-year-old daughter, Normita, and her mother, Norma Hilda Baños. Maciel had seduced Norma in Acapulco years earlier, long supporting mother and daughter comfortably in Madrid, arranging for Normita to attend the Legion’s Northern Anahuac University in Mexico City. One of the great questions in the sordid life of Nuestro Padre is how many priests were sucked into the financial coverup as he supported Norma, Normita, and two sons by another woman who lived in Curenavaca. Their stories spilled in media coverage in Mexico City in 2010.
Norma and Normita joined the priests keeping vigil at the Jacksonville condo when Maciel died in 2008. The Legion announced that he had gone to heaven.
Benedict had the power to send word to the Legionaries of Christ: stop this lying, stop this charade, come clean about the demented Maciel, make amends to the victims. Why did he, as pope, tolerate such profane hypocrisy?
Benedict’s approach reflected his ecclesiastical culture. He appointed an overseer, Cardinal Velasio de Paolis, a Spanish canon lawyer who rewrote the Legion constitution and, in 2011, presided at a Mass in Rome, gloriously ordaining 49 Legionaries to the priesthood, men who had come up through Maciel’s system. De Paolis took Sodano’s “Curia is a brotherhood” ethos in advancing new men to clerical life.
Why, with all the evidence that Benedict had, didn’t he order an intervention strategy of therapy for men saturated—brainwashed—by Maciel’s coercive tactics? Why didn’t the Vatican take a careful long view, assessing how mentally healthy each Legionary was to become a priest?We’ll likely never know, but Benedict accepted a circle-the-wagons strategy to preserve Maciel’s movement.
The Legion coverup of Maciel’s progeny continued for a year after his death, a time in which the Legion kept affirming its obedience to Benedict, without any admission that Nuestro Padre had abused anyone—a strategy that called into question the pope’s very dismissal of Maciel.
Vatican officials had learned as early as 2005 that Maciel had a daughter, as Cardinal Franc Rodé, who oversaw the Congregation governing religious orders told me in a 2012 interview in his Vatican apartment. Rodé, a huge admirer of Maciel and the Legion’s militant orthodoxy, admitted (as I had been told) that he had seen photographs of Maciel with his daughter by a priest in the know. Rodé said he shared the information with the investigator, Scicluna, who undoubtedly shared it with Cardinal Ratzinger who commissioned his probe.
Why did Cardinal Rodé refuse to take disciplinary action against Maciel? “I was not his confessor,” he said.
In following the Maciel saga after the 2007 death of my good colleague, Jerry Renner, I found new sources as men kept leaving the Legion. In 2010, three such priests revealed how Maciel used the Legion’s wealth to further his ends. He guided cash payments to cardinals like Sodano, often $5,000 at a time for coming to say Mass, or the $50,000 given by one Mexican donor for the privilege of attending a private Mass in the chapel of Pope John Paul II, “an elegant way of giving a bribe,” as one ex-Legion priest called the thick envelope handed to the pope’s Polish gatekeeper, Msgr. Stanislaw Dziwisz (today a cardinal back in Poland, his cover-ups of child abusers have been extensively covered by the TV journalist and author Marcin Gutowski).
Maciel bought the silence of Vatican officials to preserve his status after years of child molestations.
Though he would not sanction an intervention of the Legionaries, Benedict did order Legion superiors to negotiate settlements with abused ex-Legionaries—to my knowledge, a breakthrough position for a pope in a church which by then had paid out billions in U.S. court cases. Yet Benedict backed away from mounting evidence of the cult tactics that shaped the Legionaries’ behavior, letting the late Cardinal DePaolis “reform” the religious order.
The Legionaries by 2019 had entered something of a reform mode, announcing that since 1941, 175 minors had been abused by 33 of the order’s priests. Maciel had abused about one-third of those priests, the statement said.
By then the Legion was lurching from abuse lawsuits. In 2021 the Pandora Papers Report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) found that the religious order held two trusts worth nearly $300 million in assets “at a time when victims of sexual abuse by its priests were seeking financial compensation from the order through lawsuits and through a commission overseen by the Vatican.” The legion told ICIJ that “religious institutes do not have an obligation to send detailed information to the Vatican regarding their internal financial decisions or organization.”
Had Benedict XVI taken the hard decision to dissolve the order, take its assets into receivership, and provide therapy and new assignments to men seeking religious lives, he would have set a standard for future popes to follow.
Instead, Francis inherited the ongoing scandal of the Legion of Christ.
How does one account for a pope’s failure to arrest a criminal sexual underground in the priesthood that has done monumental damage to the church?
Benedict’s theology, shaped by the ideal of obedience to the pope as a higher moral realm, faced a more urgent pathological reality of church governance. Canon law is an administrative code that does have penal measures which few popes, cardinals or bishops over many years showed interest in using. “The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world,” the American Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr famously said.
That ideal, premised on free speech as a cornerstone of human rights, held scant legitimacy in Cardinal Ratzinger’s theological prism. Morality turns on obedience. The cardinal who denounced “a dictatorship of relativism” as pope had no justice system capable of arresting the crisis symptomized by Maciel. Flawed as we know democracy to be, the rule of law—genuine law—as the Trump debacles have shown, is a standard from which civilization cannot retreat. Canon law, warped by bishops and cardinals concealing sex crimes, is a case study of moral relativism, writ large—defending “the good of the church.”
The cardinal—who for nearly three decades meted out justice against religious thinkers and activists according to a moral barometer dictated by papal power—discovered, as pope, that he had no true standard of justice when he needed it most. Abiding by the “brotherhood” of the Curia, he refused to oust several Irish bishops who played musical chairs with pedophiles. Maciel as a religious order superior stood outside the Curia, his crimes of a greater magnitude. Yet In the end, the ecclesiastical culture that empowered Ratzinger to enforce moral truth as a dictator would, imposing silence and excommunications, could not meet the challenge he faced as Benedict of the church’s worst crisis since the Protestant Reformation.
A longtime contributor to The Daily Beast, Jason Berry has written extensively on the Catholic Church, including Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, which received the 2011 Investigative Reporters and Editors Best Book Award.