Berlin (CNN)Pope Benedict XVI knew about priests who abused children but failed to act when he was archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982, an inquest found Thursday, rejecting Benedict's long-standing denials in a damning judgment.
Pope Benedict XVI knew of abusive priests when he ran Munich archdiocese, investigators say
"He was informed about the facts," lawyer Martin Pusch said, as the Westpfahl Spilker Wastl law firm announced the findings of an investigation into historic sexual abuse at the Munich Archdiocese over several decades. The report was commissioned by the church itself.
"We believe that he can be accused of misconduct in four cases," Pusch said. "Two of these cases concern abuses committed during his tenure and sanctioned by the state. In both cases, the perpetrators remained active in pastoral care."
Benedict responded to the report later on Thursday, expressing his "pain and shame" for abuse in the church. Archbishop Georg Ganswein, Benedict's private secretary, told Vatican News: "Until this afternoon, Benedict XVI did not have the report from the legal firm ... which is more than 1,000 pages. In the next few days, he will examine the text with due attention."
The secretary added that the former Pope "expresses his pain and shame for the abuses of minors committed by priests [and] manifests his personal closeness and his prayers for all the victims, some of whom he met with during his apostolic trips."
Benedict has previously repeatedly rejected claims that he knowingly covered up abuse, including in 2013 when he wrote: "I can only, as you know, acknowledge it with profound consternation. But I never tried to cover up these things."
However, the findings presented Thursday represent a remarkable rebuke of the former Pope, then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, which follows years of speculation about how much he knew.
"During his time in office there were abuse cases happening," Pusch said, referring to Benedict. "In those cases those priests continued their work without sanctions. The church did not do anything.
"He claims that he didn't know about certain facts, although we believe that this is not so, according to what we know," Pusch said.
The full report was due to be published on Thursday, after its authors had outlined the key findings.
Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the current archbishop, was criticized by the panel for declining an invitation to attend the news conference.
Marx offered to resign last year over the legacy of sexual abuse at his archdiocese, but Pope Francis rejected that offer. Marx said he was "shocked and ashamed" by the report's findings on Thursday.
In a statement, the Vatican said it would await that publication before commenting further. "The Holy See considers that appropriate attention should be paid to the document, whose contents are presently unknown. In coming days ... the Holy See will be able to give it a careful and detailed examination," it said.
"In reiterating shame and remorse for abuses committed by clerics against minors, the Holy See expresses its closeness to all victims and reaffirms the efforts undertaken to protect minors and ensure safe environments for them," the statement added.
Benedict, now 94, became the first Pope in centuries to resign when he stepped down in 2013. His tenure was overshadowed by a global sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, and the investigators' findings -- which now directly implicate him in a failure to prevent and punish abuse -- threaten to wreck the reputation of the former pontiff.
Lawyer Ulrich Wastl presented a copy of the minutes of a meeting of Munich church leaders on January 15, 1980, when a decision was made to take on an abuser the report refers to as "Priest X."
Wastl said he was "surprised" that Benedict denied he was at the meeting, despite the minutes showing that he was. "This is something that is written down," said Wastl, later rejecting Benedict's denial as "hardly credible."
Wastl said Benedict had submitted a statement to the investigation, but gave it little credence, summarizing Benedict's position as: "You have the proof that a certain document was submitted, but you don't have the proof that I have read it."
In 2010, the Munich archdiocese said Benedict had no knowledge that a priest working in the archdiocese had committed sexual abuse.