PBS’s Cold Goodbye to Benedict XVI, ‘Whose Controversial Reign Ended With His Resignation’

News & Politics

When PBS marked the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on its Saturday evening news program, the obituary was dominated by a fierce anti-Benedict voice railing against the former pope’s alleged neglect of sex abuse cases among Catholic clergy.

Anchor John Yang opened the show with a brute, unfriendly summing up of Benedict’s tenure:

Catholics in mourning. Pope Emeritus XVI, whose controversial reign ended with his resignation, is dead at the age of 95.

A talking-head teaser confirmed the obituary’s hostile tone: “….He left thousands if not tens of thousands of abusive priests in ministry.”

Yang introduced the Benedict XVI obit:

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JOHN YANG:First, Benedict XVI, the pope emeritus. He died this morning in a Vatican City monastery in St. Peter’s Basilica. Pope Francis remembered his predecessor as noble and kind. Laura Barron-Lopez reports Benedict`s papacy was marked by a conservative defense of church doctrine and struggles over dealing with the clergy sex abuse scandal.

[Cuts to video]

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ: When Pope Benedict XVI stepped down in 2013, he made history, becoming the first pontiff to do so in 600 years. Benedict told a stunned world he did it for the good of the church. He cited declining health. And after closing the door on his nearly eight years at the helm, he largely disappeared from public life.

After recounting the biography of the former Joseph Ratzinger and relaying a clip of Father Thomas Reese of the Religion News Service calling the former pope an ideological “Rorschach test for people in the church,” Barron-Lopez noted that “much of his papacy was marked by the ongoing, unresolved clergy sex abuse scandal. He often spoke about it during his visits abroad, including during Mass on a trip to Washington, D.C. in 2008.”

Barron-Lopez didn’t mention Benedict was the first pope to meet with victims of clergy sex abuse, on that 2008 trip to the United States. She did note “Benedict defrocked hundreds of priests for sexual abuse while in office, a reversal of more lax policies under John Paul II….”

But then the reporter handed the segment over to activist Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability.org, who complained of Benedict, “It is a fact that when Pope Benedict left the papacy, he left in place hundreds, if not thousands of complicit bishops. He left, due to his choice to not make zero tolerance a universal reality, he left thousands, if not tens of thousands of abusive priests in ministry.”

BARRON-LOPEZ: In early 2022, an independent report commissioned by the Munich Archdiocese found that then-Archbishop Ratzinger failed to take any action in four instances of alleged sexual abuse during his tenure. In a letter, Benedict acknowledged the abuses and apologized, but never admitted wrongdoing.

Anne Barrett Doyle: I think victims realize that though Pope Benedict said the right words, he absolutely failed to follow up with steps that he was perfectly capable of taking if he was really determined to end the child molestation by priests.

The sex abuse scandal, while a tragic and important part of the history of the Catholic Church, took up two full minutes of the obituary’s 4 minutes 10 seconds of runtime, almost half of the time allotted. The network news shows, though also hostile toward Benedict XVI, were less single-minded on the issue as it related to the former pope’s reputation.

The transcript is below, click “expand” to read:

PBS New Weekend
December 31, 2022
6:02:27 p.m. Eastern

JOHN YANG: Good evening. On this final day of the year, we begin with the deaths of two significant and very different figures who left their marks in very different ways.

First, Benedict XVI, the pope emeritus. He died this morning in a Vatican City monastery in St. Peter`s Basilica. Pope Francis remembered his predecessor as noble and kind.

Laura Barron-Lopez reports Benedict`s papacy was marked by a conservative defense of church doctrine and struggles over dealing with the clergy sex abuse scandal.

[Cuts to video]

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ: When Pope Benedict XVI stepped down in 2013, he made history, becoming the first pontiff to do so in 1600 years. Benedict told a stunned world he did it for the good of the church. He cited declining health. And after closing the door on his nearly eight years at the helm, he largely disappeared from public life.

He was born Joseph Ratzinger in 1927 in southeast Germany; ordained a priest in 1951, he quickly earned a reputation as an intellectual and a theologian, teaching at German universities.

He gained notice as an expert advisor during Vatican II, which ushered in major church reforms, and for his prolific writing. In 1977, Pope Paul VI appointed Ratzinger archbishop of Munich and subsequently made him a cardinal.

A few years later, Pope John Paul II appointed him head of the Vatican office for church doctrine, where he served for almost 25 years. When Pope John Paul II died in 2005, Ratzinger was elected his successor, taking the name Benedict XVI.

POPE BENEDICT (via translator): My true plan to govern is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas but to listen, together with the whole church, to the word and the will of the Lord.

BARRON-LOPEZ: Father Thomas Reese, senior analyst at Religion News Service.

THOMAS REESE (Senior Analyst, Religion News Service): Pope Benedict was really a Rorschach test for people in the church. Progressives saw him as very controlling, as limiting theological discussion and debate.

Conservatives loved him because he was firm in his teaching and imposed that on and what they considered dissident theologians.

BARRON-LOPEZ: Benedict reinforced the church`s stance against birth control and that neither married men nor women could be ordained as priests. But much of his papacy was marked by the ongoing, unresolved clergy sex abuse scandal.

He often spoke about it during his visits abroad, including during mass on a trip to Washington, D.C., in 2008.

POPE BENEDICT: I acknowledge the pain that the church in America is experiencing as a result of the sexual abuse of minors. No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse.

BARRON-LOPEZ: Benedict defrocked hundreds of priests for sexual abuse while in office, a reversal of more lax policies under John Paul II, many after new revelations in 2010 of abuse cases worldwide.

ANNE BARRETT DOYLE (Co-Director, Bishop Accountability Website): He does indeed seem to have laicized many priests but not nearly enough.

BARRON-LOPEZ: Anne Barrett Doyle is co-director of bishopaccountability.org, a site that tracks abuse in the church.

BARRETT DOYLE: It is a fact that, when Pope Benedict left the papacy, he left in place hundreds if not thousands of complicit bishops. He left due to his choice to not make zero tolerance a universal reality. He left thousands if not tens of thousands of abusive priests in ministry.

BARRON-LOPEZ: in early 2022, an independent report commissioned by the Munich archdiocese found that then-Archbishop Ratzinger failed to take any action in four instances of alleged sexual abuse during his tenure. In a letter, Benedict acknowledged the abuses and apologized but never admitted wrongdoing.

BARRETT DOYLE: I think victims realize that, though Pope Benedict said the right words, he absolutely failed to follow up with steps that he was perfectly capable of taking, if he had — was really determined to end the child molestation by priests.

BARRON-LOPEZ: In his final years, Benedict seldom appeared in public. In August, he and Pope Francis met with newly appointed cardinals at the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI was 95 years old. For PBS News Weekend, I`m Laura Barron-Lopez.

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