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Ex-Pope Benedict failed to act against abusive priests in Germany, report finds

The law firm that drew up the report, which faulted the current archbishop in two cases, said Benedict strongly denied any wrongdoing.

ROME — A report into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Germany's Munich diocese has found that retired Pope Benedict XVI failed to act in four cases between 1977 and 1982 when he was Archbishop of Munich.

Lawyers who drew up the report said Benedict categorically denied any wrongdoing. The report also faulted Munich's current archbishop, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, an important ally of Pope Francis.

The archdiocese commissioned the report from law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl nearly two years ago, with a mandate to look into abuse between 1945 and 2019 and whether church officials handled allegations correctly.

“In a total of four cases, we came to the conclusion that the then-archbishop, Cardinal Ratzinger, can be accused of misconduct,” said one of the reports’ authors, Martin Pusch, referring to Benedict's name before he was made Pope. He added that the former pope had “strictly” denied responsibility in response to the accusations.

Benedict, now 94, has been living in the Vatican since resigning as pontiff in 2013.

His personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, told reporters that Benedict would "examine the text with the necessary attention," in the coming days.

He added that Benedict had expressed his "shock and shame" at "the abuse of minors during the years of his pontificate."

The archdiocese and the law firm said that top church officials had been informed of the results ahead of its publication.

However, in a statement to NBC News, the Vatican said the report's "contents are presently unknown." 

"In coming days, following its publication, the Holy See will be able to give it a careful and detailed examination," Matteo Bruni, the director of the Vatican Press Office, said in a statement to NBC News. 

"In reiterating shame and remorse for abuses committed by clerics against minors, the Holy See expresses its closeness to all victims and reaffirms the efforts undertaken to protect minors and ensure safe environments for them," he added.

Pope Benedict XVI. (Joseph Ratzinger) - The archbishop of Munich during an interview in his palace in Munich - 1980
Retired Pope Benedict XVI was archbishop of Munich before he became pope. ullstein bild via Getty Images file

Munich's current archbishop, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, declined an invitation to attend the presentation on Thursday, according to the report's authors.

But in a statement Marx apologized on behalf of his archdiocese "for the suffering inflicted on people in the church over the past decades."

Last year, Marx offered to resign over the church’s "catastrophic" mishandling of clergy sexual abuse cases, saying that the scandals had brought the church to "a dead end."

Francis rejected the offer but added that a process of reform was necessary and that every bishop must take responsibility for the "catastrophe" of the abuse crisis.

A church-commissioned report concluded in 2018 at least 3,677 people were abused by clergy in Germany between 1946 and 2014. More than half of the victims were 13 or younger, and nearly a third served as altar boys.

Ratzinger served in Munich from 1977 to 1982 before becoming the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and later becoming Pope Benedict XVI.

The revelations are the latest to rock the Roman Catholic Church after a series of sexual abuse scandals around the world, often involving children.

In cities across the U.S. the church has faced an avalanche of child sexual abuse accusations over the last few decades.

A 2002 investigation by The Boston Globe, later dramatized in the movie "Spotlight," exposed how pedophile priests were moved around by church leaders instead of being held accountable.

Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer who represented a number of victims in the Boston area told NBC News: "That Pope Benedict covered up clergy sexual abuse when he was Archbishop of Munich comes as no surprise to clergy sexual abuse victims and further weakens the global moral authority of the Catholic Church."

Elsewhere child sexual abuse allegations have been made Australia, South America and a number of European countries over the last few decades.

In France, a major investigation established by Catholic bishops, concluded in October that more than 200,000 children, many of them boys, had been sexually abused by French clergy over 70 years.

The church had shown "deep, total and even cruel indifference for years, protecting itself rather than the victims of what was systemic abuse, Jean-Marc Sauve, the head of the commission that compiled the report, said at the time.

That report came four months after Pope Francis issued the most extensive revision to Catholic Church law in four decades, insisting that bishops take action against clerics who abuse minors and vulnerable adults.

Sexual abuse of minors in the Code of Canon Law, a seven-book code of about 1,750 articles, was put under a new section titled "Offences Against Human Life, Dignity and Liberty." It was expanded to include crimes such as "grooming" of minors or vulnerable adults for sexual abuse and possessing child pornography.

Claudio Lavanga reported from Rome. AK Pohlers reported from London.