(RNS) — The surviving family members of the late Pope Benedict XVI will inherit money from his estate, according to the executor of his last will and testament. None of these relatives seem willing to touch him.
One cousin has already refused to accept the inheritance; four others have yet to respond. If they are smart, they will also reject it.
The problem is that by accepting the money, an heir also takes over any legal claims against the deceased, according to inheritance laws in Germany, where all the cousins live. Joseph Ratzinger, as he was known before adopting his papal name, is a defendant in one of the most high-profile clerical sex abuse cases in the country.
“We did not expect this inheritance, and our lives are fine without it,” said Martina Holzinger, the now 88-year-old daughter and legal guardian of a Ratzinger cousin who turned down the unexpected gift.
When the retired pope died at age 95 on December 31, 2022, his former aide, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, went to work as executor of the will. “Gorgeous George,” as Clooney’s lookalike was known among Vatican journalists, made contact with the few surviving first cousins.
Without even knowing how much the inheritance would amount to, the prospect of taking on the scandal that darkened Ratzinger’s legacy was too much. “I could get nervous just thinking about how much I would have to pay,” he told Bavarian Radio.
The former pope’s troubles began in 1980, when he was Archbishop of Munich, and the Rev. Peter Hullermann was transferred to the Bavarian state capital from Essen. Hullermann had been accused of eight child abuse cases in Essen, but although Munich was informed of his record, the public was not.
After some therapy, the church’s accepted response at the time, Hullermann was sent back to the normal ministry near Munich, with no mention of his past troubles. That gave him access to minors once more, and in 1986 he received an 18-month suspended sentence from a local court for sexually abusing 11 children.
The priest was then sent to Garching an der Alz, near the Austrian border, and the abuse continued. In 2008 he was transferred again to Bad Tölz, a spa town south of Munich. There, in 2010, he was suspended as a priest and finally expelled in 2022.
The former pope denied knowing about Hullermann until January 2022, when a report on sexual abuse in the Munich archdiocese showed that he had attended a 1980 meeting on Hullermann’s transfer and approved of it.
The report, ordered by the archdiocese itself, accuses him of likely lying to investigators. They concluded that Ratzinger had failed to act in four separate cases of abuse.
Days later, his personal secretary, Gänswein, said Ratzinger now remembered attending Hullermann’s meeting and blamed the omission on “an oversight in the editing of the statement.”
Two months after his death, Bavarian Radio reported that the Hullermann case had also followed Ratzinger to Rome, where he became an influential adviser to Pope John Paul II in 1982.
A 1986 letter he wrote gave the Vatican permission for the wayward priest to celebrate Mass with grape juice instead of wine because he was an alcoholic.
Amid these revelations, Andreas Perr, now 39, spoke out to claim that Hullermann had sexually abused him in the 1990s in Garching an der Alz.
Since the criminal charges were beyond the statute of limitations, Perr filed a civil suit for 50,000 euros in damages from the heirs and another 300,000 euros from the Archdiocese of Munich. In addition, he asked the defendants to pay any future costs resulting from the abuse.
Her petition listed the consequences of her abuse as “traumatic nightmares, flashbacks, and avoidance symptoms related to repression of stressful memories of the violent event.”
All this would not be so complicated if Benedict had not resigned in 2013, the first pontiff to resign in six centuries. Normally, a Pope who dies in office leaves everything in the hands of the Holy See, the central government of the Roman Catholic Church.
“Pope Ratzinger,” as the Italians called him, earned royalties from the many books he wrote and salaries from the universities where he was a professor of theology. He too had a comfortable income during his time as Archbishop of Munich.
In his initial letter to Ratzinger’s cousins, Gänswein did not reveal how much money was at stake or how many cousins survived to share it. He also made it clear that no book royalties or personal items were part of the package.
Speaking to reporters in March, he revealed that there were five cousins and that between them they could inherit “what might still be in the bank account.” It seemed that it might be a small sum.
But no one knows how high those future costs of abuse will be. The Archdiocese of Munich has further complicated the matter by saying it was ready to pay “compensation for the plaintiff’s suffering and to find an adequate solution for any claim for damages that goes beyond this.”
“It’s just like in the movies,” a puzzled Holzinger, the first Ratzinger relative to come forward, said of the inheritance case.
“I myself work in a school, so children are very important to me. I am really interested in these things being cleared up and that the plaintiffs get their rights.”