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Rev. Tom Reese reflects on Pope Benedict's legacy as mourners gather in Rome

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

And Catholic Jesuit priest Thomas Reese is with us this morning to add to this. He's a senior analyst with Religion News Service and the author of "Inside The Vatican: The Politics And Organization Of The Catholic Church." Good morning.

THOMAS REESE: Good morning.

SCHMITZ: Father Reese, we just heard from NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome, who described Pope Benedict's legacy. How would you describe his legacy?

REESE: Well, I agree with much of what Sylvia said. He certainly will go down in history as the first pope to resign in 600 years, and it makes it easier for future popes to resign. In addition, you know, he was the first person in the Vatican to take the sex abuse crisis seriously and to begin to do something about it, and threw hundreds of priests, if not thousands of priests, out of the priesthood, these bad priests that needed to be gotten rid of.

But the third thing I would mention is that, you know, we all look upon Pope Benedict as a conservative pope. And that's true when it dealt with the internal church of the life - internal life of the church, church policies, church doctrine. But when it came to public issues, he was really extremely liberal, probably to the left of most American politicians. He would have had no problem with universal health care. He opposed both Iraqi wars. He was very strong at defending the poor and migrants. And also, he was the first pope to really talk about the environment. He had solar panels installed on the roof of the Vatican. So on, you know, internal life of the church, he was very conservative. But on public policy issues, he was quite liberal.

SCHMITZ: That's really interesting what you're saying about how Pope Benedict was, in fact, more liberal than a lot of people give him credit for. Do you think that this is something that will be maybe ignored when they talk about him in the future?

REESE: Oh, yeah. I think that most people will focus on the controversial aspects of his papacy and especially his views on sexual ethics, on gender. These are the kinds of things that - abortion - these are the kinds of things that most people focus on when they're talking about Pope Benedict, not the fact that - everybody's forgotten that he was a strong opponent of the Iraq war.

SCHMITZ: Now, you mentioned the sex abuse scandal within the church which unfolded while Benedict was pope. Now, here in Germany, where I live, just a year ago, it was revealed that he was caught up in this scandal as well during his years as an archbishop when he mishandled four cases in Germany. This was one of the worst scandals in the church's history with thousands of victims. How did he handle it while he was pope?

REESE: Well, nobody in the church handled the sex abuse crisis well. Certainly when he was archbishop of Munich, he was - he did not do it very well. My guess is that he delegated the issue to his subordinates and didn't really pay much attention to it. But the good thing about Benedict was he grew in his understanding of the sex abuse crisis. And when he was in the Vatican, he was the first official to really take it seriously, much more seriously than Pope John Paul II did. And as head of the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, he was the guy who had to read the files. And he just - you know, he read the files, and he said, this guy's got to go, and threw hundreds of priests out of the priesthood and realized that there was just no place in the Catholic Church for priests who had abused children.

SCHMITZ: Very quickly, Father Reese, what sticks with you about the time when you met the cardinal who would become Pope Benedict?

REESE: Well, when I met the cardinal, he was very kind to me. I was writing my book on "Inside The Vatican: The Politics And Organization Of The Catholic Church." And he took time out of his busy schedule to, you know, meet with a young scholar. I was young at the time. And he gave me a wonderful interview.

SCHMITZ: That's Father Thomas Reese. He's a senior analyst with Religion News Service. Thanks very much.

REESE: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.