VATICAN CITY Long before entering Vatican life, Pope Benedict XVI won renown as a theologian and a German university professor, penning more than 40 books and winning a devoted following of students who respected his prodigious memory and brilliant mind. One thing absent from his resume? Significant time as a parish priest. Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope, only worked 15 months tending to a flock in the 59 years since taking his vows, instead closing himself in the ivory tower of academia a background that may help account for his troubled handling of the sex abuse crisis engulfing the church. For one, it adds to the impression of an out-of-touch pontiff who simply doesn't grasp the enormity of the fury around the world over mounting evidence of sex abuse by priests, and inaction on the part of the Vatican and Benedict himself. Benedict's very legacy will be shaped by whether this aging pontiff, who turns 83 on Friday, can embrace a new openness and express remorse in straightforward language free of the stilted defensiveness of many Vatican pronouncements to date. "Pope Ratzinger, more lucid than many of his defenders, must keep from being suffocated by Professor Ratzinger," Marco Politi, a veteran Vatican reporter, wrote in a column last week in the daily Il Fatto. But in his native Germany, the prominent Der Spiegel magazine has already declared his papacy a failure, speaking in its most recent issue of "the tragedy of a man who had set out to write books and, only near the end of his life, was summoned to assume the Herculean office at the Vatican." Even the pope's staunchest admirers say he's not the best manager. "Benedict XVI is only infallible as an authoritative teacher of the faith, not as an administrator," noted the Rev. Joseph Fessio, who wrote his doctoral dissertation under Ratzinger and participates in the annual "student circle" discussions Benedict hosts each summer with his former students. Some of Benedict's critics, however, say the pope's real problems lie mainly with a practice of surrounding himself with unqualified advisers. "He doesn't have grade A types around him but he picked them," said the Rev. Richard McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame and frequent critic of the pope. McBrien noted that although Ratzinger served only a short time as a parish priest, his five years as archbishop of Munich and Freising gave him ample real-world experience. He said Ratzinger engaged fully with even the small details of administration there and later as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church's doctrine office. Yet his tenure in Munich provides precisely one of the more damning cases of sex abuse that have swirled around the pope himself: In the 1980s, Ratzinger approved therapy for a suspected pedophile priest, but the prelate was allowed to resume pastoral work while in therapy. The Vatican has insisted that Ratzinger's vicar took full responsibility for letting the Rev. Peter Hullermann resume pastoral work and that the future pope was unaware. Hullermann in 1986 was handed a suspended sentence for molesting a boy. In addition, while running the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger resisted pleas from a California diocese to laicize a priest who had pleaded no contest to lewd conduct for tying up and molesting two boys, according to correspondence obtained by The Associated Press. The Vatican's lawyer has insisted the California bishop was responsible for making sure the priest, the Rev. Stephen Kiesle, didn't abuse while Rome processed his case to remove him from the priesthood. "The pope's background as a professor of theology has little or nothing to do with the present controversy. It is simply one of the excuses offered by his well-intentioned defenders," McBrien told the AP. Despite Benedict's missteps, there are a few signs that some understanding of the outrage is starting to penetrate the Vatican's medieval walls. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, long a bastion of protecting Vatican secrecy, is seeking greater openness with plans to post on its Web site Monday a concise and simply written guide to how it handles sex abuse allegations. And in his recent letter to the Irish bishops, Benedict urged greater cooperation with civil authorities in cases of pedophile priests and said he'd meet with more victims.