GERMANY: Church abuse scandal reaches Pope's brother

[VATICAN CITY] — Church abuse scandals in Germany have reached the older brother of Pope Benedict XVI and are creeping ever closer to the pontiff himself.

While there has been no suggestion of wrongdoing by Benedict, the launch of an inquiry by German Catholic officials after his brother admitted he slapped children years ago is stirring Vatican fears of a major crisis for the papacy.

Benedict, 82, was archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982 when he was brought to the Vatican to head the body responsible for investigating abuse cases. During that time, he came under criticism for decreeing that even the most serious abuse cases must first be investigated internally.

Since then, Benedict has taken a strong stand against abuse by clerics in the Roman Catholic Church.

Just weeks before he became pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger caused a stir when he denounced "filth" in the church and among priests — a condemnation taken as a reference to clerical sex abuse.

German church officials said Wednesday they will examine what — if anything — Benedict knew about abuse during his time as Munich archbishop.

"We do not know if the pope knew about the abuse cases at the time," church spokesman Karl Juesten told The Associated Press.

He said the church "assumes" Benedict knew nothing of such cases, but that current Munich Archbishop Reinhard Marx will be "certainly investigating these questions."

Juesten, the liaison between Roman Catholic bishops and the German government, said the German Bishops Conference had asked parishes and church institutions in the country to examine all allegations of the sexual and physical abuse.

Separately, the Regensburg Diocese told The Associated Press it will investigate allegations of physical and sexual abuse that have swirled around a renowned choir led by the Benedict's brother, the Rev. Georg Ratzinger. So far, the sex abuse allegations predate Georg Ratzinger's term as choir director.

Vatican officials have been unable to hide their alarm about the possible implications for the papacy.

"There is certainly the suspicion that there are some out there out to damage the church and the pope," said a Vatican official, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The Vatican has spoken up several times in recent days to defend the church as having acted "promptly and decisively" regarding the German abuse scandal. But it also noted that problems of sex abuse spread across society and are not limited to the Roman Catholic Church.

When Benedict became pope in 2005, the Vatican was reeling from a massive sex abuse scandal in the U.S. church. The new pope promised a policy of zero tolerance as he went on to apologise and pray with some of the victims while traveling in the United States and Australia.

The pope has been working on a letter to be read to Catholics in Ireland, where a government report detailed decades of physical and sexual abuse in church-run schools. The letter is expected to be released shortly.

The pope held his weekly public audience Wednesday but made no mention of the sex abuse scandal.

Georg Ratzinger, 86, said in a newspaper interview published Tuesday that he slapped pupils as punishment after he took over the Regensburger Domspatzen boys choir in the 1964. He also said he was aware of allegations of physical abuse at an elementary school linked to the choir but did nothing about it.

The slapping of students and other forms of corporal punishment were common in Catholic schools in Germany and other countries in that era. Such punishment was later banned.

The Regensburg Diocese has reported two cases of sexual abuse at the choir, stemming from 1958 and 1959. And across Germany, more than 170 students have claimed they were sexually abused at several Catholic high schools.

Ratzinger has repeatedly said the sexual abuse allegations date from before his tenure as choir director. Asked in the interview Tuesday whether he knew of them, Ratzinger insisted he was not aware of the problem.

"These things were never discussed," Ratzinger told Tuesday's Passauer Neue Presse German daily. "The problem of sexual abuse that has now come to light was never spoken of."

Jakob Schoetz, a spokesman for the Regensburg Diocese, told The Associated Press that the diocese is appointing an independent investigator — an attorney — to examine allegations of physical and sexual abuse at the choir.

"The independent lawyer will thoroughly go through all existing legal papers, all court decisions and any information available," Schoetz said. "We expect to publish first results within the next two weeks."

Franz Wittenbrink, 61, who sang in the Regensburger Domspatzen choir from 1958 to 1967, said he was physically abused on a regular basis by the priests at its boarding school.

"Severe beatings were normal, but Ratzinger did not belong to the group of more sadistic abusers," Wittenbrink said in a phone interview with the Associate Press from Hamburg. "But I do accuse him of covering up the abuses."

Wittenbrink said all boys suffered some physical abuse but a "selected group" of students was also abused sexually.

Another former choir boy at Domspatzen told the Bild daily that he and other boys were sexually abused by teachers at the choir's boarding school in the 1950s. Manfred von Hove was quoted as saying he "finally wants to have answers and find out who was responsible for the cover-up at the time."

He said he planned to sue the Regensburg Diocese for compensation.

Rudolf Neumaier, a student from 1981 to 1982 at the Etterzhausen elementary school in Pielenhofen — considered a feeder school for the choir — told the AP he was slapped there, witnessed corporal punishment of other boys, and saw then-director Johann Meier hit an 8-year-old boy with a chair.

Neumaier, who went on to join the Domspatzen choir in Regensburg in 1982, stressed he did not witness or hear about any abuse at the choir boarding school itself. But he said he personally told choir director Georg Ratzinger about the violence at the elementary school and Ratzinger did nothing about it. "He chose not to listen," Neumaier said.

Ratzinger said that boys had told him about being mistreated at the Etterzhausen school but he did not understand how bad it was.

Criticism of the Catholic church has been heavy in Germany, whose relations with the Vatican had already been jolted last year when Benedict lifted the excommunication of an ultraconservative British bishop who denied the Holocaust.

The Vatican moved to defuse criticism after German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said that a Vatican secrecy rule has played a role in a "wall of silence" surrounding sexual abuse of children.

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