ESSEN, Germany — The case that has raised questions about the future pope’s handling of a pedophile priest in Germany came to light three decades after it occurred, and then almost by chance. It happened when Wilfried Fesselmann, an early victim, said he stumbled on Internet photographs of the priest who sexually abused him, still working with children.
Fesselmann, who had long remained silent about the abuse he suffered in 1979, said the pictures stunned him and spurred him to contact his abuser. Thus began the convoluted process, which included an extortion investigation against Fesselmann for the emotionally raw e-mail messages he sent the church in 2008 demanding compensation, that ultimately put Pope Benedict XVI in an uncomfortable spotlight.
After the police investigated him for blackmail, Fesselmann did not discuss his charges publicly until last month. By that time, molestation of children by other priests had exploded into public view in Germany, with scores of investigations into old and new cases capturing headlines nationwide.
The fact that it took so long before the Roman Catholic Church took action against the abusive priest, and that the victim initially had to defend himself, is an indication that the German church — as well as Germany’s police, courts and society at large — are still in the early stages of reckoning on a psychologically fraught issue that many Germans once dismissed as an American problem.
Fesselmann also had no way of knowing that his case would create repercussions for the church that went well beyond his own grievance. His and other cases of abuse caused the church to transfer the abusive priest, the Rev. Peter Hullermann, to Munich in 1980, a decision that required the approval of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then the archbishop of Munich and Freising, now the pope. Hullermann was given therapy in Munich, but he was allowed to resume his pastoral duties almost immediately.
Hullermann went on to molest other boys and was not formally suspended until last month, after the German church acknowledged that “bad mistakes” were made in the handling of his case. The church said the decision to allow the priest to resume his duties in 1980 was made solely by Ratzinger’s top aide at the time, but church officials also said the future pope was sent a memo about the reassignment.
While the church has acknowledged Hullermann’s extensive history of sexual abuse, there have been no court proceedings on Fesselmann’s claims.
Three decades after Fesselmann said Hullermann forced him, then 11, to perform oral sex on him, he saw pictures of the priest — older and now heavy-set, but still recognizable — working with children in Bavaria, at the opposite end of the country.
Fesselmann sent intermittent e-mail messages to Hullermann over the next year and a half. The messages were unsigned but sent from his personal account.