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ROME – Pope Francis’s top official on child protection has said retired Pope Benedict XVI’s apology for his own failings in the matter is a challenge to Church leaders everywhere to be more diligent.

On Feb. 8 Benedict XVI issued a formal response to allegations by a German law firm that he mishandled four abuse cases during his time as archbishop of Munich from 1977-1982.

That conclusion came as part of a nearly 2,000-page report commissioned by the Archdiocese of Munich and conducted by the Westpfahl Spilker Wastl law firm, which found 497 people had been abused in the Munich archdiocese from 1945 to 2019, and which identified some 235 abusers.

In the report, released Jan. 20, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is accused of covering up for abuser priests and allowing them to continue to hold assignments in three cases. A fourth case that called his actions into question was also covered in the report, but investigators cleared him of wrongdoing.

Benedict issued a personal letter Tuesday asking forgiveness for his own failings, saying that given the prominent leadership positions he has held in the Catholic Church, “all the greater is my pain for the abuses and the errors that occurred in those different places during the time of my mandate.”

However, his legal team denied any wrongdoing in the cases cited in the report, insisting that then-Cardinal Ratzinger had not been aware of the misconduct of the priests in question while making decisions at the time.

RELATED: Benedict XVI denies alleged wrongdoing in Munich report

In a Feb. 8 statement following the publication of Benedict’s response, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, said that “Conscience speaks to us if we are prepared to listen.”

Benedict’s message, he said, provided an intimate picture of the “drama of his own conscience” when examining the abuse issue throughout his lengthy ecclesial career.

“The evil suffered by victims of child sexual abuse by priests and religious and his handling of such abuse justly and necessarily weighs heavily on the conscience of the Pope-emeritus,” O’Malley said, saying Benedict’s “sobering testimony” is a reflection of the retired pontiff’s deep awareness that “moments of darkness and sinfulness have cruelly scarred survivors of child sexual abuse.”

Benedict’s acknowledgement of “the irreparable harm caused by sexual abuse in the Church and of his own failings to do everything to prevent such harm is a challenge to all those who hold positions of leadership in the Church,” O’Malley said, adding, “We must do better.”

O’Malley said Benedict in his apology has offered survivors and all others impacted by the abuse crisis “his own contrition for what has been lacking in his stewardship.”

“His witness and profound honesty should galvanize all of us to defend survivors of abuse and to protect all those entrusted to our care,” he said.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen