A new documentary is blaming Pope Benedict XVI for the “dramatic loss of moral authority that the Church suffers from today” on the question of child sexual abuse.

Driving the news

Defender of the Faith, a new film by award-winning German director Christoph Röhl, “tells the story of a man who has dedicated his life to preserving the Church but instead led it into its greatest crisis”, according to a press release.

The documentary was released in theatres Thursday.


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The big picture

Defender of the Faith tells the story of the Church’s “greatest crisis since the Reformation: the global child sex abuse scandal”.

Director Röhl paints a picture of “tragic hero” Pope Ratzinger who, during his thirty years in the Vatican, was “the key figure in restoring fundamental Catholic doctrine after a brief period of modernisation in the 1960s”.

Through interviews with clerical abuse victims, journalists, priests and confidants of the German pope, Röhl uncovers how Ratzinger’s policies got the Church stuck in the mire of pedophilia it still finds itself in today.

“This is an epic story, with a tragic hero in the central role”, the documentary press release states.

“Ratzinger, who believed that truth could exclusively be found in the teachings of the Catholic Church and that contemporary society was lost if it did not rediscover its Catholic values, was forced to acknowledge that his greatest enemies were inside the Church, even amongst his inner circle.

“By the time that he became aware of his errors, he found himself surrounded by chaos and enemies, his whole world crumbling around him”.

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Go deeper

“Although I am not a believer, I have always been fascinated by the extraordinary appeal of the worldwide Catholic Church”, said director Röhl.

“Many think that Ratzinger’s resignation drew a line under the manifold problems and crises of the institutional church. I see this differently because the crises that appeared during Benedict’s pontificate had systemic origins – and continue to exist today.

“Ratzinger’s departure has a symbolic meaning that goes far beyond his own person and raises essential questions about the abuse of power in all undemocratic, authoritarian and patriarchal systems”.

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Why it matters

Early reviews have highlighed Defender of the Faith as the portrait “of a man who started out as a reformer, only to be defeated by modernity”.

But Thursday after the premiere German Bishops’ spokesman Matthias Kopp angrily rejected that portrayal.

Kopp blasted Röhl’s film as “heavily distorted” and “erroneous”.

He added that Röhl had portrayed Ratzinger as a man “was always concerned only with the purity of the Church and the priesthood, never with the victims”.

“For decades, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI was a driving force against abuse”, Kopp said.

He highlighted as an example the Pope Emeritus’ prosecution and defrocking of some 380 abuser priests in his nearly eight years as pontiff.

“These aspects are not adequately appreciated in the film”, Kopp lamented.

The German Bishops’ spokesman also recalled that Benedict was the first Pope to meet privately with victims of clerical abuse, in September 2011 in Erfurt.

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For the record

Röhl’s film has also came under criticism from one of its interviewees: Benedict’s private secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein.

Gänswein called the documentary a “non-objective… mess”, a “debacle”.

The diocese of Regensburg, for its part, labelled the film “tendentious and manipulative”.

Ratzinger biographer Peter Seewald also blasted the documentary as a “collection of polemics, half-truths and untruths” that was “not to be taken seriously as a contribution to the discussion” on sex abuse in the Church.

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