Benedict XVI and the clergy abuse crisis

Pope Benedict XVI, during and after his tenure, faced scrutiny and intense criticism over his approach to revelations of sexual abuse by clergy. ReligionLink provides resources for reporters covering this and other topics related to the former pope.

One of the abuse cases is connected to Benedict’s own tenure as archbishop of Munich (1977-1982), while others concern Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s long career as top doctrinal official at the Vatican before his election as pope on April 19, 2005.

First, here are a few resources directly related to the debates about Benedict’s pontificate and the clergy abuse crisis, with general resources on a variety of issues listed further below.

Key issues

Benedict XVI is a theologian and scholar who built a reputation as a stern moralist while head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but as pope he was seen as much more of a pastor and catechist. But he made his mark in other ways from his election on April 19, 2005 to his resignation on February 11. 2013. Here are some of them:

Emerging profile

From 1981 until his election as pope after the death of John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger served as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for John Paul. The head of the CDF is responsible for safeguarding doctrine and disciplining theologians and others who are seen as straying from orthodoxy. That makes the office one of the most powerful in the Vatican and in the church, and one of the most controversial.

While Ratzinger earned a reputation as a hardliner while at the CDF, his largely unexpected election as pope did two things, observers say: One, it has enabled him to leave the controversial disciplinary action to others while allowing his pastoral side to emerge. And two, it has caused Catholics and church observers to take a fresh look at Ratzinger as pope, apart from his former role as a cardinal in the Roman Curia. Benedict XVI is the first German elected to the papacy in more than 1,000 years, and he followed a Polish pope who was the first non-Italian elected pope in more than 450 years.

Encyclicals and books

A pope’s writings are always cornerstones of his papacy and often form the core of his legacy to the church. As an esteemed intellectual, theologian and author, Pope Benedict particularly focused on leaving an important body of work in addition to the many volumes he wrote as a cardinal.

Of his writings, several are considered most important. Three are encyclicals, the most authoritative statements a pope can issue.

Among the books the pope has written, two stand out in importance and popularity. Jesus of Nazareth, issued in spring 2006, was the first of a projected two-volume work on the life of Jesus Christ. Benedict is working on the second volume, which will cover Christ’s Passion, death and resurrection. A second book, Jesus, the Apostles and the Early Church, is a collection of Benedict’s reflections at his weekly general audience.

  • Deus Caritas Est (God is Love)

    Pope Benedict’s first encyclical. An encyclical is considered one of the most authoritative documents from the pen of the pope, and a new pontiff’s first encyclical is considered something of a “mission statement” for the rest of the pontificate. Benedict’s first, Deus Caritas Est, or God is Love, was considered surprising by some in that it did not deal with the controversial moral issues Ratzinger was known for, but with the concept and application of Christian charity and the relation to divine and sexual love, agape and eros. Still, some saw in the document hints of a change in focus from traditional Catholic social justice teachings – a change that reflects Benedict’s longtime views.

  • “Caritas in veritate”

    Read the official Vatican text of the encyclical in English.

  • Spe Salvi (Saved by Hope)

    An encyclical signed on Nov. 30, 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI.

  • Benedictus XVI writings

    The Vatican Web site has a complete list of all the pope’s writings, homilies and speeches.

  • The Vatican

    The official website of the Holy See.

The environment

Benedict attracted media attention for his regular references to the need to protect and nurture the environment.

Homosexuals and the Priesthood

An effort to keep homosexuals out of the priesthood had been debated for years in the Vatican, at the initiative of then-Cardinal Ratzinger. But the policy was never implemented until Ratzinger became pope. In November 2005 the Vatican issued a document under Benedict’s signature, titled “Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with Regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in View of Their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders.”

The document aimed to bar gay men from the priesthood, and it caused wide debate. At the same time, the Vatican began an inspection of U.S. seminaries in an effort to tighten up on the preparation of future priests in the wake of the clergy sex abuse scandals, including their ability to deal with celibacy. That initiative also sparked some controversy.

  • “On priesthood and those with homosexual tendencies”

    Full text of the Vatican instruction entitled, “Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with Regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in View of Their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders.” The document’s aim is to bar gay men from the priesthood.


  • “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church.”

    The Vatican stirred controversy in July 2007 when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued this statement, with Benedict’s approval. The document, in the form of answers to various questions, sought to reaffirm the Catholic Church as the one church established by Jesus Christ. That restatement angered many non-Catholics, especially in the Protestant and Orthodox churches.


Pope Benedict’s September 2006 lecture at the University of Regensburg during a homecoming visit to Bavaria included statements on Islam and the Prophet Muhammad that were highly inflammatory and led to the first major crisis of Benedict’s papacy. His visit to Turkey more than a year later, in November 2007, helped to ease tensions, and after an exchange of communications between the Vatican and Muslim scholars, a Catholic-Muslim Dialogue began in Rome in November 2008. The pope’s visit to Jordan, Israel and the Occupied Territories in May 2009 was also seen as helping to repair relations with Islam.

Jewish relations and the Latin Mass

In July 2007 the pope fulfilled a long-expected goal of restoring the pre-Vatican II Latin Rite Mass to wider use in the church. The action was controversial inside the church. Many bishops did not see the need for it, and many thought it was a way of undoing the reforms of the conciliar era. The move upset many Jewish groups because included in the restoration was a Good Friday prayer for the conversion of Jews that had been superseded by the new theological insights of the Second Vatican Council. The pope later had the prayer edited to allay fears, but concerns remain. The pope’s surprise decision in January 2009 to lift excommunications on four bishops belonging to a breakaway Traditionalist sect also upset many Jews because of the association of the schismatics with anti-Semitic views.

Censuring dissent

Vatican concern remains strong when it comes to theologians and Catholic leaders who Rome believes stray from orthodox teachings. Two episodes drew headlines while underscoring this concern. The first was the March 2007 notification from Rome that some of the works of a Jesuit liberation theologian in El Salvador, the Rev. Jon Sobrino, were “either erroneous or dangerous.” The second was the news in November 2007 that the Vatican and the U.S. bishops were investigating the works of a Vietnamese-born American theologian at Georgetown University, the Rev. Peter Phan. In December 2007 the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine said that Phan’s 2004 book on religious pluralism contains “pervading ambiguities and equivocations that could easily confuse or mislead the faithful.” The Vatican probe is believed to be ongoing.

National sources

  • John L. Allen Jr.

    John L. Allen Jr. is editor of Crux, a website specializing in coverage of the Catholic Church. He previously was the longtime Rome correspondent for National Catholic Reporter. Allen is considered a top Vaticanologist and a leading English-language expert and commentator on the papacy.

  • Christopher Bellitto

    Christopher Bellitto is chair of the history department at Kean University in New Jersey, where he has taught a course on the papacy. He has also written many articles on Catholicism and is a regular television commentator on Vatican stories.

  • Nicholas P. Cafardi

    Nicholas P. Cafardi is a leading experts on the Catholic Church’s response to abusive clergy and an expert on canon law. He is an attorney with Cafardi Ferguson Wyrick Weis and Stotler in Sewickley, Pa.

  • John T. Ford

    The Rev. John T. Ford is a professor at the school of theology and religious studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.. He has often used Pope Benedict XVI’s books as texts in his courses on Christianity.

  • Chester L. Gillis

    Chester L. Gillis is dean of Georgetown College, a professor in the department of theology and director of the Program on the Church and Interreligious Dialogue in the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. He is an expert in Catholocism and the editor of The Political Papacy: John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Their Influence.

  • Jeannine Gramick

    Sister Jeannine Gramick was ordered to stop ministering to homosexuals by then-Cardinal Ratzinger in 1999. She has defied Vatican orders to cease her ministry to gay and lesbian Catholics. Contact her through the organization she co-founded, New Ways Ministry, in Mount Rainier, Md.

  • Thomas G. Guarino

    The Rev. Thomas G. Guarino is a professor of systematic theology at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. He has written on the theological vision of Joseph Ratzinger.

  • Robert P. Imbelli

    The Rev. Robert P. Imbelli is an associate professor emeritus of theology at Boston College and has written and commented widely on the theology and policies of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

  • Thomas Reese

    The Rev. Thomas J. Reese is a Jesuit priest and senior analyst for Religion News Service. He writes and comments widely on Catholic culture and politics. He is the author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church

  • Greg Tobin

    Greg Tobin is senior adviser for communications at Seton Hall University in New Jersey and author of Holy Father: Pope Benedict XVI: Pontiff for a New Era.

  • George Weigel

    George Weigel is an orthodox-minded Catholic theologian and distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He is the author of God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church (2005) and Witness to Hope (1999), which is essentially the authorized biography of Pope John Paul’s papacy. Weigel also wrote The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II : The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010).

  • J. Peter Pham

    J. Peter Pham is former director of the William R. Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Virginia. He is also a former Vatican diplomat who worked under John Paul II and is author of Heirs of the Fisherman: Behind the Scenes of Papal Death and Succession. Currently, he is the director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center. Pham is a frequent commentator on papal politics and processes.


Papal travel in the modern era did not begin until Paul VI went to India and the Holy Land in 1964. Until then, popes were self-styled “prisoners of the Vatican,” the 108-acre compound in Rome that is the site of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Paul VI was known as “the Pilgrim Pope” because he made nine trips outside of Italy, including the first papal visit to the United States, a stopover in New York in 1965. But Pope John Paul II traveled constantly and widely.

Benedict is older and has not been as active in his foreign travel. His April 2008 visit to the United States was his first as pope.

Before the 2008 trip, he had visited the United States five times while he was a cardinal. He lectured in Dallas in 1984, in New York in 1988 and in Washington, D.C., in 1990. In 1991 he spoke to bishops in Dallas and in 1999 he visited San Francisco for a meeting of Vatican doctrinal officials and doctrinal officials from bishops’ conferences in North America and Oceania.

Books about Pope Benedict XVI


Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Lisa Sowle Cahill

    Lisa Sowle Cahill is a professor of theology at Boston College who has written about genetics from a Christian perspective. Her books include Theological Bioethics: Participation, Justice and Change and Bioethics and the Common Good.

  • Stephen Pope

    Stephen Pope is a professor of theology at Boston College and a frequent commentator on church affairs and the papacy. He is author of The Evolution of Altruism and the Ordering of Love and writes about different forms of love in Christian thought, Christian ethics, justice, and charity, and evolutionary theory.

  • Alice Laffey

    Alice Laffey is an associate professor of religious studies at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. She has written a history of papal statements and the evolution of papal teaching, and she can address issues regarding women and gender.

  • John S. Grabowski

    John S. Grabowski is an associate professor of religious studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He also has an expertise in women’s issues. He and his wife were appointed to the Pontifical Council for the Family by Pope Benedict XVI in the fall of 2009.

  • Robert Wister

    The Rev. Robert Wister is a leading expert on the history of the papacy. He is a professor of church history at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. He earned a doctorate in church history at the Gregorian University in Rome.

In the South

  • Peter J. Bernardi

    The Rev. Peter J. Bernardi is an associate professor of religious studies at Loyola University in Chicago. He can talk about the papacy in the contemporary world. He contributed an essay to the collection in Catholicism Contending With Modernity: Roman Catholic Modernism and Anti-Modernism in Historical Context.

  • William F. Maestri

    The Rev. William F. Maestri is a theologian and spokesman for the Archdiocese of New Orleans with a specialty in bioethics. He can talk about Pope John Paul II’s philosophical defense of human dignity in all contexts — medical, economic, etc.

  • Charles E. Curran

    Charles E. Curran is the Scurlock Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He specializes in moral theology, social ethics and the role of the church as a moral and political actor in society. He is a liberal theologian who was dismissed from Catholic University of America for his teachings on human sexuality after an extended struggle, which included meetings with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Curran can also comment on the politics of the papacy.

  • Mark Ellingsen

    Mark Ellingsen is an associate professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. He is the author of the article “Joseph Ratzinger: How Conservative is Benedict XVI?” in the October 2005 issue of Theology Today.

  • Gerald P. Fogarty

    The Rev. Gerald P. Fogarty is a professor of religious studies and history at the University of Virginia and an expert on the Vatican. He is the author of several books on Catholicism and the papacy. His essay “The Papacy: From Low Regard to High Esteem” is part of a 2000 collection from Liturgical Press titled The Catholic Church in the Twentieth Century.

In the Midwest

  • Steven M. Avella

    The Rev. Steven M. Avella is associate professor of history at Marquette University in Milwaukee and an expert on American Catholic history and the history of the American West.

  • Dennis Doyle

    Dennis Doyle is a professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton and a frequent commentator and author on Catholic issues and the papacy.

    Contact: 937-229-4219.
  • Michael A. Fahey

    The Rev. Michael A. Fahey is professor emeritus of theological studies at Marquette University in Milwaukee. He is an expert on the history and office of the papacy, and papal elections.

  • Sandra Yocum

    Sandra Yocum is chair of religious studies at the University of Dayton who specializes in the history of theology, which is Benedict’s forte.

    Contact: 937-229-4321.

In the West

  • James Eblen

    The Rev. James Eblen is a professor emeritus in Seattle University’s school of theology and ministry who can speak about the papacy.

  • Patrick Howell

    The Rev. Patrick Howell is vice president for mission and ministry at the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University. He co-edited the book Empowering Authority: The Charisms of Episcopacy and Primacy in the Church Today. He has frequently written about Pope Benedict XVI for the Seattle Times.

  • Thomas P. Rausch

    The Rev. Thomas P. Rausch is a professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. A Catholic priest, Rausch is the author of Authority and Leadership in the Church: Past Directions and Future Possibilities.

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