VIENNA – As Pope Benedict XVI has come under scrutiny for his handling of sexual abuse cases, both his supporters and his critics have paid fresh attention to the way he responded to a sexual abuse scandal in Austria in the 1990s, one of the most damaging to confront the church in Europe.
Defenders of Benedict cite his role in dealing with Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer of Vienna as evidence that he moved assertively, if quietly, against abusers. They note that Groer left office six months after accusations of his molesting boys first appeared in the Austrian news media in 1995. The future pope, they say, favored a full canonical investigation, only to be blocked by other ranking officials in the Vatican.
A detailed look at the rise and fall of the clergyman, who died in 2003, and the involvement of Benedict, a Bavarian theologian with many connections to German-speaking Austria, paints a more complex picture.
Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, had the ear of Pope John Paul II and was able to block a favored candidate for archbishop of Vienna, clearing the way for Groer to assume the post in 1986, say senior church officials and priests with knowledge of the process. His critics question how this influence failed him nine years later in seeking a fuller investigation into the case.
Benedict’s ambiguous role has made the Groer case a kind of Rorschach test of the future pope’s treatment of sexual abuse during his long stewardship of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s powerful doctrinal body.
There are indications that Benedict had a lower tolerance for sexual misconduct by elite clergy members than other top Vatican officials did, including his boss, John Paul.
Unlike John Paul, his predecessor, Benedict has as pope apologized and met with sexual abuse victims. But while he often, as a cardinal, used his clout to enforce doctrine and sideline clergy members whose views diverged from his own, he seemed less willing at that time to aggressively pursue sexual abusers.
Monsignor Helmut Schuller, a former vicar general of the Vienna Archdiocese, says the church cannot win back the trust of Catholics unless the pope is more forthcoming about his past role in managing abuse scandals.
“He cannot expect others to be transparent, like the Irish bishops he appeals to in his letter, and not be transparent himself,” said Schuller, who until 2005 was the archdiocese’s ombudsman for sexual abuse cases.