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Pope Benedict XVI concludes an audience in Saint Peter's Square in this November 16, 2011 file photo.STEFANO RELLANDINI/Reuters

Benedict XVI's eight-year reign as Pope was a losing battle against perception – most tellingly the perception that, as absolute ruler of the Roman Catholic Church, he did far less than enough to rid it of the cancer of sexually abusive priests and may have been complicit in its spread.

The 85-year-old German intellectual also vacates the Throne of St. Peter tarnished by accusations that he rejected all theological efforts to move Roman Catholicism toward a more progressive, contemporary morality and institutional comportment around feminism, sexual orientation and sexual behaviour, and ham-fistedly failed to reach out to those who seek God by other paths.

As well, he's been given failing grades on his great goals of reigniting Christianity as the bedrock of European life and halting the spread of secularism and moral relativism in a materialist world.

Has it all been true? "Perception is 90 per cent of truth. It's what people latch onto," said Prof. Mark McGowan of University of Toronto's St. Michael's College, one of Canada's outstanding scholars on the Catholic Church.

And yet the historical record of Benedict's papacy is far more complex – perhaps no more so than on his record of handling the church's horrific calumny of sex abuse.

He was accused of covering up the actions of an abusive priest when he was archbishop of Munich in Germany, an accusation he has denied and which has not been conclusively established. He has been accused of portraying the scandals in the United States as events fuelled by a sensational media. He's been accused of making apologies to abuse victims with no follow-through of corrective action.

Yet columnist John Allen Jr. of the U.S. National Catholic Reporter, one of the most authoritative journalists on the affairs of the church, has reported that the Pope, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, referred to the abuse as filth, persuaded his predecessor John Paul II to let him take control of the church's response to it, acquired an unparalleled understanding of the problem, and became "driven by a convert's zeal to clean up the mess."

Mr. Allen says that then-cardinal Ratzinger, as head of the church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – its enforcement arm – oversaw the inclusion in church law of Internet offences against children, waived the statute of limitations in abuse allegations against priests, and sped up laicization (defrocking) of priests convicted of abuse.

Could he have done more? Possibly.

Yet Prof. Dennis Doyle, a leading American Catholic scholar currently at Germany's University of Augsburg, said in an interview that Benedict faced three cultural barriers in the church that should not be underestimated.

First, a culture of protectiveness in the church comparable to the police culture – you don't turn in your mates. Second, a deeply entrenched culture – which Benedict has helped cement – that local bishops, not the far-removed Vatican, are primarily responsible for what goes on in their backyards. And third, the reality that the Catholic Church, perceptions to the contrary, is not a tight ship under an autocratic pope but a vast, unwieldy institution beyond the reins of anyone's control.

Benedict, although an outstanding theologian, never had his predecessor's star power. But like the idolized John Paul II, he sought a harmonious balance between progressives and ultra-conservatives in the church.

Seen through the lens of Western media, however, he looked like a diehard conservative because the church's ultra-conservative wing – the Pius X Society and others – sat schismatically outside the church and was simply never as visible to Western media as the progressives.

Benedict saw himself – no doubt as many other members of the Catholic hierarchy did – as trying to hold his church together.

Like Augustine, the church father who had the greatest influence on him, Benedict was a non-Utopian.

He believed that one did what little one could and left the rest to God.

The world still pays attention when the papacy changes hands, said Canadian Catholic scholar Michael Higgins, vice-president of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., "because it is exotic, some distance from our ordinary orbit of meaning, an office that appears to resist change and one recognizable voice above the normal political din."