Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI Reuters

Just hours after the news broke that Pope Benedict XVI will resign, worldwide shock had given way to puzzlement and questions. The 85-year-old pope cited his age and declining strength as his reasons for stepping down but, considering his predecessor Pope John Paul II held on as Parkinson’s disease slowly eroded his health, many are wondering about Benedict’s true motivation.

During a quickly assembled press conference, Vatican spokesman Frederico Lombardi told reporters Benedict XVI would be the first pope to resign since 1415 because – in the pope’s own words -- “advanced age” had hurt his health to the point that it “deteriorated in me to the extent that I have to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

Lombardi said the pope has been considering abdication for months, telling the media, “It was his personal decision taken in complete freedom. And which merits maximum respect.”

Before succeeding John Paul II in 2005, Benedict XVI was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, portrayed as a reluctant leader who was enlisted to the papacy to restore the Catholic Church’s credibility in the wake of the clerical sex abuse scandal. Before his election Cardinal Ratzinger encouraged John Paul to create a centralized system for the Vatican to investigate priests who had been accused of molesting children.

The problem was that as a cardinal, Ratzinger had recommended therapy for a priest accused of pedophilia. When that counseling came to an end the priest raped children again, eventually being arrested as critics accused Ratzinger of being complicit in hiding from controversy and ignoring the victims. Experts said the pattern continued during his time as Pope Benedict XVI.

“When forced to, he talks about the crimes but ignores the cover-ups, uses the past tense as if to suggest it’s not still happening,” David Clohessy, the executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, told USA Today. “He has vast powers and he’s done very little to make a difference.”

Pope Benedict XVI did meet with victims of sex abuse and prayed with them but never admitted any Vatican failure, despite leaving known pedophiles in office at the church. Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, said Benedict’s papal reign had to come to an end because he facilitated widespread abuse.

She told USA Today his prayer meetings were “merely public relations. These gestures were cynical and, in a way, cruel, because they gave survivors and Catholics the illusion that he was a reformer. … Pope Benedict left a convicted felon in office.”

The failure to address the ever-spiraling sex abuse allegations was combined with a series of public gaffes. In 2006 he said the contributions made by Islam's Prophet Muhammad were “only evil and inhuman.” Then, three years later, he claimed distributing condoms in Africa to prevent the spread of HIV only made the problem worse.

Reports have surfaced in the past year that Pope Benedict XVI had lost all control over the Vatican, evidenced by his butler, Paolo Gabriele, leaking sensitive documents to the press. Gabriele was convicted in October of smuggling out more than 1,000 documents that reportedly exposed widespread corruption in the hierarchy. The pages, stashed in Gabriele’s apartment, according to CNN, had been ordered to be destroyed with the pope’s official seal.

Days before Christmas the pope pardoned Gabriele, who had been sentence to 18 months in prison, “in order to confirm his forgiveness and communicate in person his decision to grant Mr. Gabriele’s request for pardon, thereby remitting the sentence passed against the latter.”

But the damage had already been done. The so-called Vatileaks scandal exposed problems in the church that many suspect have led to Benedict’s resignation. Spiegel Online quoted anonymous monsignors who questioned the pope’s leadership, even wondering if the idea of the monarchy was still workable in the 21st century.

“He simply isn’t taking matters into his own hands,” one said. “The Vatican is a ball of wool that’s almost impossible to untangle – not even by a pope.”