Photo By Broc via Wikimedia Commons
Pope Benedict XVI's stunning announcement Monday that he plans to resign after almost eight years as pontiff brought renewed attention to the sex abuse litigation and related legal maneuverings that have roiled the Roman Catholic Church over the course of the past decade.
In voluntarily stepping down as head of the Holy See, the 85-year-old, German-born Benedict becomes the first pope to make such a move since Gregory XII in 1415. Upon relinquishing the Catholic Church's highest office, Benedict will revert to his former title, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Benedictwho was elected the 265th pope by the College of Cardinals in April 2005 after a papal conclave was convened following Pope John Paul II's death that same monthcited his advanced age and lingering health problems as the main reasons for his decision to give up his position as leader of the world's estimated 1.2 billion Catholics. (Click here for video of Benedict's resignation speech and here for his resignation letter.)
"It's a historic, somewhat unprecedented move," says Jeff Anderson of Minneapolis-based Jeff Anderson & Associates, who has represented sex abuse victims in litigation against the Catholic Church since 1983. "And I think we're indebted to the survivors who have put pressure on the hierarchy and the papacy."
Benedict, a fierce critic of capitalism, has during his tenure as pope become a lightning rod for those upset by the Church's handling of accusations that current and former priests and lay employees sexually abused minors.
While the sex abuse scandal first made major headlines in this country thanks to a 2002 Boston Globe investigation, other stories detailing decades of unpunished abuse subsequently emerged in cities across the country before going global. The Republic of Ireland, a staunch bastion of Catholicism, saw its own government release the damning Cloyne Report in 2011an exhaustive, 421-page document that recounts the failure of Church officials to report cases of sexual abuse to the appropriate authorities.
Anderson, who spoke with The American Lawyer in 2011 about the nearly 30 years he has spent in the legal trenches doing battle with the Church on behalf of sex victims, has in recent years sought to implicate the Vatican and the pope himself in litigation filed in U.S. courts.
Anderson also represents a group of deaf plaintiffs suing the Archdiocese of Milwaukee over its longtime employment of a pedophile priest who abused more than 200 children, which is the subject of a new HBO documentary by Alex Gibney called Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. Anderson credits his clients in that case with eventually bringing to light the once-taboo subject of childhood sex abuse in the Church. "They first filed suit in the 1970s, long before I got involved," Anderson adds. "We have a duty to protect those that are the most vulnerable among us."
As The New York Times reported in 2010, the Milwaukee case uncovered documents showing that Benedict, then known as Cardinal Ratzinger in his role presiding over the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (a Vatican office that arose out of the Inquisition), was sent two letters in 1996 about the pedophile priest who is a key figure in Gibney's documentary.