Contrary to statements released by the Church in Germany, a memorandum uncovered by The New York Times suggests that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was told that a priest had gone back to pastoral duties in Munich a few days after he started psychiatric treatment.
The priest went on to commit further offences.
The Pope's spokesman tonight denied the claims.
The latest child abuse scandal to hit the Catholic Church involves a German priest, Father Peter Hullermann, who was convicted of molesting boys in 1986. Victims have complained that repeated warnings were ignored by the Church over decades of abuse.
In 1980, the Pope was the Archbishop of Munich overseeing the archdiocese in which Father Hullermann was given a few days of treatment after sexual abuse allegations and then told he could return to work.
When the scandal broke earlier this month Monsignor Gerhard Gruber, who was Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising at the time and in effect Cardinal Ratzinger's deputy, took "full responsibility" for the decision to allow the priest to resume his duties.
The Munich Archdiocese also officially acknowledged that “bad mistakes” were made in the handling of Father Hullermann, but attributed them to officials subordinate to Cardinal Ratzinger.
But the memo, the existence of which was confirmed to The New York Times by two church officials, shows that the future Pope not only led a meeting on January 15, 1980, approving the transfer of the priest to his district, but that he was also kept informed about the priest’s subsequent reassignment.
It remains unclear whether he played any part in the decision-making process or whether he had personally read the memo addressed to him.
Over the following years, church officials repeatedly transferred Father Hullermann to new parishes and allowed him to work with children, even after the 1986 conviction for sexually abusing boys.
He was suspended only this month as the sex abuse scandals came to light in the Pope's native Germany.
The initial statement by the Munich Archdiocese claimed that Father Hullermann had been allowed to return to work because of the “the statements of the treating psychologist”.
That was flatly contradicted by the psychiatrist in question. Dr Werner Huth, who treated him from 1980 to 1992, said he had warned church officials not to allow him to work with children from the very outset.
The latest statement from the Munich Archdiocese raises doubts over whether the future pope would have actually read the memo addressed to him. Father Lorenz Wolf, judicial vicar in the Munich Archdiocese, said it was “unlikely to have landed on the archbishop’s desk", but he could not rule out that Cardinal Ratzinger had read it.
Father Wolf said he had also spoken to Monsignor Gruber, who could not remember a detailed conversation with Cardinal Ratzinger about Father Hullermann but could not rule out that the name had come up.
Tonight, Father Federico Lombardi, the Pope's spokesman, claimed that he "did not know about the decision to re-insert the priest in pastoral and parish activity". He added that any other version of events was "mere speculation".
Father Hullermann, 61, was suspended this month from his post in the Bavarian spa town of Bad Tolz for violating an undertaking not to have further contact with children and young people.
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