ROME — A report commissioned by the Roman Catholic Church in Munich and released on Thursday accused the retired Pope Benedict XVI of mishandling at least four cases of sexual abuse by priests when he was the archbishop there. Members of the law firm that conducted the investigation also said Benedict had attended a meeting about a pedophile priest that he claimed he didn’t go to, or know the details of.
The accusations, most of them new, reach to the very top of the hierarchy of a Catholic Church devastated by a sexual abuse crisis over the last 20 years. They are all the more explosive, and damaging, as they are directed at a living, if retired, pope.
The accusations, which Benedict has rejected, threaten to tarnish the legacy of a soft-spoken, if doctrinaire, pontiff revered by many conservatives, but also to cast a longer shadow over a global institution that has struggled to address, and move on from, the scourge of sex abuse.
The investigation, two years in the making, goes to the heart of the culture of cover-up and underscores the tacit policy of protecting church leaders ahead of children and other vulnerable people. Both were pervasive during the years when Benedict, then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was archbishop of Munich and Freising. He held the position from 1977 to 1982 and had oversight over the clerics in the archdiocese. And, according to the report, he failed to act against some abusive priests.
“In a total of four cases, we came to the conclusion that the then-archbishop, Cardinal Ratzinger, can be accused of misconduct,” Martin Pusch, one of the report’s authors, said in a news conference presenting the roughly 1,900-page report — based on church documents and witness accounts — in Munich on Thursday.
A Vatican spokesman, Matteo Bruni, said the Holy See would examine the report. “In reiterating the sense of shame and remorse for the abuse of minors committed by clerics,” Mr. Bruni said, “the Holy See ensures its closeness to all the victims and confirms the path taken to protect the little ones, guaranteeing them safe environments.”
Accusations of Benedict’s mismanagement of abuse cases as archbishop have hounded him for years, including during his papacy, as has criticism that he did not do enough to hold bishops accountable for covering up abuse. But Thursday’s report is the first formal accusation that Benedict failed to discipline abusive priests and allowed them to continue their ministry without expressed restrictions.
A significant portion of the report centers on one of those priests, whom another German diocese transferred to Munich for therapy for pedophilia in January 1980, when Benedict was archbishop. The Munich church allowed the priest to return to pastoral work, and in 1986 he was convicted of sexually abusing minors and given an 18-month suspended sentence with five years of probation.
The law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl, which drafted the report, said Benedict firmly denied any wrongdoing in an 82-page written statement, in which, they said, he cited a lack of knowledge of the facts of the cases and claimed not to recall having attended meetings in which the priest’s case was discussed.
“I did not take part,” Benedict wrote to the lawyers last month.
But in the news conference, investigators held up papers they said were minutes of a meeting in January 1980 that showed the archbishop as an attendee and that the transfer of the priest was discussed. They said he spoke in the meeting, but on another issue.
“We do not find the testimony or the statement of Pope Benedict that he was not present at this meeting to be credible,” Ulrich Wastl, another of the lawyers who carried out the investigation told reporters.
Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict’s personal secretary, said that Benedict, who is 94 and infirm, only found out about the report on Thursday afternoon, and would examine it “with the necessary attention.”
Despite the many criticisms, Benedict, who once referred to the abuse as “filth” in the church, has also been credited with defrocking and penalizing many accused clerics, and was the first pope to apologize for abuse and meet with victims. He introduced new guidelines for bishops to respond to sexual abuse reports.
He is not the first pontiff to have faced accusations of mishandling abuse, and some of the allegations against him are not new.
The report on the handling of clerical abuse of minors in the diocese of Munich and Freising, which covered the period from 1945 to 2019, also accused other senior church figures in the diocese, including the current archbishop, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, of mishandling sexual abuse cases.
Cardinal Marx did not attend the presentation of the report. In a statement hours later, he didn’t mention the accusations against him but lamented the “appalling scale” of the abuse demonstrated in the report, and said he was “shocked and ashamed” by its findings.
The report identified at least 497 victims, most of them boys, with about 60 percent between the ages of 6 and 14. It identified at least 235 abusers, including priests, deacons and employees of Catholic schools.
In 2018, a report commissioned by the German Bishops’ Conference found that the clergy had abused at least 3,677 people in the country between 1946 and 2014. More than half of the victims were 13 or younger and almost a third of them had served as altar boys.
But the Munich report had the potential to shake the church beyond Germany because of its findings involving the faith’s former leader.
“This will harm the image of the German pope forever,” said Andreas Englisch, a Vatican expert and biographer of Benedict. He said the report would hurt Benedict’s chances of following in the footsteps of John Paul II and other popes toward canonization. “He will never become a saint.”
Others said that Benedict was already a polarizing figure in a deeply divided church and that the embattled conservatives who adore him, and pine for the days of his pontificate, would unlikely be swayed by the accusations.
“This will only confirm pre-existing views,” said David Gibson, director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University, who also wrote a biography of Benedict. “It’s not going to change it one way or the other,” he said.
Indeed, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, said in a statement that “to us, this is not shocking news.” But it added that “true action could come in the form of admission from Pope Benedict XVI and for him to relinquish his honor as Pope emeritus. That could start the act of contrition.”
After his time as archbishop in Munich, Benedict became the chief doctrinal watchdog of the Roman Catholic Church, serving for years under Pope John Paul II.
Pope John Paul II took a defensive stance in the face of abuse accusations. Critics say he turned a blind eye to the widespread sexual abuse, and abuse of power, throughout the global church and in his hierarchy.
An extraordinary Vatican report in 2020 cast the sainted John Paul in a harsh light and blamed him for the advancement of the disgraced former prelate Theodore E. McCarrick, who was later removed from the priesthood for sexual abuse, and for the general culture of looking the other way. That report also showed that Benedict told Mr. McCarrick to keep a low profile when more allegations of abuse emerged in 2005.
Benedict’s papacy coincided with a major eruption in the sexual abuse crisis, and he often seemed overwhelmed by it and other Vatican scandals. He resigned in 2013.
On Thursday, Benedict’s closest aide, Archbishop Gänswein said in his statement that Benedict reiterated his “disturbance and shame at the abuse of minors committed by clerics.” He added that the retired pope expressed “his personal closeness and his prayers for all the victims, some of whom he met on the occasion of his apostolic journeys.”
Melissa Eddy contributed reporting from Berlin.