Before he led the Roman Catholic Church as Benedict XVI, and before he loomed over the church as a powerhouse cardinal and the Vatican’s chief doctrinal watchdog, Joseph Ratzinger, archbishop of Munich, attended a 1980 meeting about a priest in northwestern Germany accused of abusing children.
What exactly transpired during the meeting is unclear — but afterward, the priest was transferred, and over the next dozen years moved around Bavaria to different parishes before he ended up in the tiny village of Garching an der Alz, where he sexually abused Andreas Perr, then 12.
“It feels so heavy,” Mr. Perr said on Tuesday, puffing cigarettes outside the house where he was molested, just a few steps from the white steeple of the village church. He said his abuse had led him down a road marred by drugs and prison while Archbishop Ratzinger had risen up the ranks of the church. Speaking of the retired Pope Benedict XVI, who died on Saturday, he added, “to think of the power that one person could have over your life.”
A report last year commissioned by the Catholic Church in Munich accused Benedict of mishandling cases of sexual abuse by priests. Benedict apologized for any “grievous faults” but denied any wrongdoing.
The scourge of child sexual abuse in the church haunted Benedict, from the beginning of his rise through the hierarchy to his last year as a frail, retired pope, when the Munich investigators added a final complication to a deeply conflicted legacy.
To supporters, he is the leader who first met with victims and — more than anyone before him — forced the church to finally face its demons, change its laws and get rid of hundreds of abusive priests. He raised the age of consent and included vulnerable adults in laws that protected minors. He allowed the statutes of limitations on sexual abuse to be waived.
To critics, he protected the institution over the victims in its flock, failed to hold even a single bishop accountable for shielding abusers and did not back up his words with action. He preferred to keep discipline in house, never requiring cases to be reported to the civil authorities.
“We can be grateful for what Benedict XVI did in bringing the fight against abuse in the church to a new level by introducing tighter procedures and new laws,” said the Rev. Hans Zollner, one of the Vatican’s top experts in safeguarding minors and in sexual abuse. “He was the first pope to meet with survivors of abuse. At the same time, given the report that during his years as archbishop of Munich he failed to give due attention to victims of abuse and hold perpetrators accountable, we cannot ignore that victims and others are hurting.”
Mr. Perr, now 38, is still trying to rebuild a life after what the church put him through. He is no longer a member of the Catholic Church.
As Archbishop Ratzinger ascended to greater heights, Mr. Perr’s life spiraled into an ever deeper abyss. His mother refused to believe him, and he fled home and got into heavy drugs like heroine, living out on the streets.
“After it happened, I started having nightmares,” he said. “That’s what made me start doing drugs. I wanted to stop dreaming, to stop feeling guilty and disgusting. I just didn’t want to feel anything anymore.”
Over the years, Mr. Perr ended up in prison twice, getting out on parole only last year.
That was when he found the criminal lawyer Andreas Schulz, after learning Ms. Schulz was representing other abuse victims of the same priest. Together, they decided to aim higher: They would file a civil lawsuit, not just against the priest accused of molesting him and several boys in Garching, but also against the Archdiocese of Munich and Joseph Ratzinger, then its archbishop.
Before Benedict died, the pope emeritus hired a large international law firm and said he planned to defend himself in a trial set to start this year. Now, Mr. Schulz and his client plan to pursue the case even in his death, and they still want to hold Benedict XVI, or the heir to his estate, accountable.
Mr. Schulz said it might even be Benedict’s successor, Pope Francis, who inherits case, should he become Benedict’s heir. The lawyer argued that the church should accept the trial as an opportunity to finally clear up the complicated history Benedict XVI left behind.
“His theological achievements are one side of his legacy,” Mr. Schulz said. “But there are shadows that hang over him, and those shadows can only be removed now if the right thing is done and accountability is accepted. That is something only Pope Francis can do now, and that is what our trial is trying to push toward: People want transparency, they want acceptance of accountability, they want compensation.”
Accounts such as Mr. Perr’s have become painfully familiar in the church over recent decades. The revelation of systemic abuse gutted dioceses and chased away the faithful in countries all around the world.
In the United States, a scandal that erupted in Boston has shaken nearly every part of the country. The church in Ireland, once a fortress for Catholicism, was so decimated by abuse scandals that Benedict in 2010 wrote the first pastoral letter from a pope on the issue of abuse. “You have suffered grievously, and I am truly sorry,” he wrote. A 2021 report in France alleged that hundreds of thousands of children had been abused by the church there.
Church leaders, who once considered the crisis an invention of liberals and lawyers, or a problem of Anglophone countries drummed up by an anti-Catholic news media, now acknowledge that it is everywhere, and Francis, after his own missteps, introduced rules to hold the hierarchy more accountable.
But supporters of Benedict, and even his critics, acknowledge that Francis built on Benedict’s reforms. Before the deluge that overwhelmed the church, the cases dripped in during the 1980s — often from English-speaking countries — and fell on his desk at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
In 1988, he pressed the Vatican’s canon law department — which required long church trials to address accusations — to give him a freer hand to more quickly remove abusive priests. It refused, arguing that such a move would deprive priests of due process, and as a result, bishops sought to cure them with prayer and therapy or simply relocated abusers to other parishes, where they preyed on more children.
But Cardinal Ratzinger’s office also failed to act in egregious cases. In the 1990s, it halted a secret trial of an American priest who had molested as many as 200 deaf boys and wrote to the cardinal insisting the priest had already repented. He was never defrocked.
In 2001, Cardinal Ratzinger persuaded Pope John Paul II to let him try to get the problem under control. He drafted a church law that required bishops to forward all credible allegations of abuse to the Vatican, where his office was made responsible for the cases.
He backed up American bishops who sought to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy that expelled priests who engaged in a single episode of sexual abuse. . As John Paul reached the end of his pontificate in 2004, Cardinal Ratzinger ordered a review of the pending cases in his department.
In 2005 for the Good Friday Via Crucis procession at Rome’s Colosseum, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, “How much filth there is in the church, especially among those who, in the priesthood, are supposed to belong totally” to Christ.
When he became pope, he disciplined — and ultimately defrocked — the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, a serial abuser and the Mexican founder of the religious order the Legionaries of Christ. A prodigious fund-raiser, Father Maciel had won the loyalty of Pope John Paul II and his inner circle, which had for years blocked Benedict’s efforts to investigate him.
“The issue is very mixed and complex,” said Marie Collins, an Irish survivor of abuse who resigned in frustration in 2017 from a Vatican commission on protecting minors created by Francis. She said that Benedict’s reading of so many cases as head of the doctrinal congregation made him “grasp the enormity of the problem when he became pope,” and that he brought in new procedures against sexual abuse.
Ms. Collins said that it was “unfair to make too much” of the mistakes he made in handling cases during his own personal ministry, when he was a bishop in Germany, but that Benedict, as pope, “didn’t do enough in-depth work on the issue or pursue it to the fullest.”
For many, he did not go nearly far enough.
Anne Barrett Doyle, a co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a victims advocacy and research group, said in a statement the day of Benedict’s death that he “left hundreds of culpable bishops in power and a culture of secrecy intact.”
On Tuesday evening in the Munich cathedral that Benedict led as bishop 40 years ago, the current archbishop, Reinhard Marx, began a Mass in honor of Benedict by inviting everyone to pray, including “those who have experienced abuse and suffering in the space of the church. All those who have received good gifts from Joseph Ratzinger. And all those who now, in this hour, trust that God’s goodness and mercy will heal everything.”
Jason Horowitz reported from Rome, and Erika Solomon from Munich and Garching an der Alz, Germany. Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting from Rome, and Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin.