by Roger More
MUNICH — The future Pope Benedict XVI was kept more closely apprised of a sexual abuse case in Germany than previous church statements have suggested, raising fresh questions about his handling of a scandal unfolding under his direct supervision before he rose to the top of the church’s hierarchy.Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope and archbishop in Munich at the time, was copied on a memo that informed him that a priest, whom he had approved sending to therapy in 1980 to overcome pedophilia, would be returned to pastoral work within days of beginning psychiatric treatment. The priest was later convicted of molesting boys in another parish.An initial statement on the matter issued earlier this month by the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising placed full responsibility for the decision to allow the priest to resume his duties on Cardinal Ratzinger’s deputy, the Rev. Gerhard Gruber. But the memo, whose existence was confirmed by two church officials, shows that the future pope not only led a meeting on Jan. 15, 1980, approving the transfer of the priest, but was also kept informed about the priest’s reassignment.
What part he played in the decision making, and how much interest he showed in the case of the troubled priest, who had molested multiple boys in his previous job, remains unclear. But the personnel chief who handled the matter from the beginning, the Rev. Friedrich Fahr, “always remained personally, exceptionally connected” to Cardinal Ratzinger, the church said.The case of the German priest, the Rev. Peter Hullermann, has acquired fresh relevance because it unfolded at a time when Cardinal Ratzinger, who was later put in charge of handling thousands of abuse cases on behalf of the Vatican, was in a position to refer the priest for prosecution, or at least to stop him from coming into contact with children. The German Archdiocese has acknowledged that “bad mistakes” were made in the handling of Father Hullermann, though it attributed those mistakes to people reporting to Cardinal Ratzinger rather than to the cardinal himself.
Church officials defend Benedict by saying the memo was routine and was “unlikely to have landed on the archbishop’s desk,” according to the Rev. Lorenz Wolf, judicial vicar at the Munich Archdiocese. But Father Wolf said he could not rule out that Cardinal Ratzinger had read it.
According to Father Wolf, who spoke with Father Gruber this week at the request of The New York Times, Father Gruber, the former vicar general, said that he could not remember a detailed conversation with Cardinal Ratzinger about Father Hullermann, but that Father Gruber refused to rule out that “the name had come up.”
Benedict is well known for handling priestly abuse cases in the Vatican before he became pope. While some have criticized his role in adjudicating such cases over the past two decades, he has also won praise from victims’ advocates for taking the issue more seriously, apologizing to American victims in 2008.
The future pope’s time in Munich, in the broader sweep of his life story, has until now been viewed mostly as a steppingstone on the road to the Vatican. But this period in his career has recently come under scrutiny — particularly six decisive weeks from December 1979 to February 1980.
In that short span, a review of letters, meeting minutes and documents from personnel files shows, Father Hullermann went from disgrace and suspension from his duties in Essen to working without restrictions as a priest in Munich, despite the fact that he was described in the letter requesting his transfer as a potential “danger.”
In September 1979, the chaplain was removed from his congregation after three sets of parents told his superior, the Rev. Norbert Essink, that he had molested their sons, charges he did not deny, according to notes taken by the superior and still in Father Hullermann’s personnel file in Essen.
On Dec. 20, 1979, Munich’s personnel chief, Father Fahr, received a phone call from his counterpart in the Essen Diocese, Klaus Malangré.
There is no official record of their conversation, but in a letter to Father Fahr dated that Jan. 3, Father Malangré referred to it as part of a formal request for Father Hullermann’s transfer to Munich to see a psychiatrist there.