German choir abuse claims hit close to home for retired Pope Benedict XVI

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Pope Benedict XVI prays with his brother Mons. Georg Ratzinger in his private chapel at the Vatican April 14, 2012. Picture taken April 14, 2012.  Photo courtesy REUTERS/Osservatore Romano

Pope Benedict XVI prays with his brother Mons. Georg Ratzinger in his private chapel at the Vatican April 14, 2012. Picture taken April 14, 2012. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Osservatore Romano

(RNS) Allegations that more than 200 boys in a Catholic-run choir and two connected schools in Germany were abused over the span of several decades, some of them sexually, have brought the church’s abuse scandal uncomfortably close to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, whose older brother directed the famous Bavarian choir during that time.

The allegations were reported by an attorney, Ulrich Weber, who had been hired by the Diocese of Regensburg last year to investigate claims of abuse at the Regensburger Domspatzen choir and two feeder schools between 1953 and 1992.

Weber told a news conference on Friday (Jan. 8) that at least 50 of the 231 alleged victims made “plausible” claims of sexual abuse.

Benedict’s brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, conducted the historic choir from 1964 to 1994. Asked if Ratzinger, now 92 and still living in Regensburg, had known of the abuse, Weber said: “After my research, I must assume so.”

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“The events were known internally and criticized, but they had almost no consequences,” Weber said. The cases are too old to be prosecuted, he said.

Ratzinger has in the past said he knew that boys suffered physical mistreatment and he himself used corporal punishment at times, but he said he was unaware of any sexual abuse.

Most of the new allegations concern beatings and other mistreatment, such as food deprivation.

They were attributed mainly to Johann Meier, who headed one of two primary schools associated with the choir from 1953 until his retirement in 1992; he died later that same year.

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But dozens of the new allegations also concern sexual abuse, ranging from fondling to rape. “The reported cases of sexual abuse in Regensburg were mostly concentrated in the period of the mid to end 1970s,” Weber said, according to Agence France-Presse. He added that “50 victims spoke of ten perpetrators.”

Weber said that over the course of eight months he interviewed 140 people, including 70 alleged victims. He said since the report was made public, several other alleged victims contacted him.

When reports of sexual abuse in the 1000-year-old choir first surfaced publicly in 2010, Georg Ratzinger insisted that he was unaware of them.

“These things were never discussed,” Ratzinger told a German newspaper, Passauer Neue Presse. “The problem of sexual abuse that has now come to light was never spoken of.”

But Ratzinger did concede that boys told him about physical abuse they suffered at the hands of Meier, head of one of the lower schools.

“But I did not have the feeling at the time that I should do something about it,” Ratzinger said. “Had I known with what exaggerated fierceness he was acting, I would have said something.”

“Of course, today one condemns such actions,” he said. “I do as well. At the same time, I ask the victims for pardon.”

Ratzinger himself had a reputation as a taskmaster, which was not unusual for the culture of the time, in Germany and in the Catholic Church.

“He was a very strict director and people were scared of him,” Hans Zillner, a local official who sang in the choir as a boy, told The New York Times in 2005 when Georg Ratzinger’s brother, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was elected Pope Benedict XVI.

In the 2010 interview, Georg Ratzinger said that he, too, would use corporal punishment on the boys.

“At the beginning I also repeatedly administered a slap in the face, but always had a bad conscience about it,” he told the German newspaper. Corporal punishment was made illegal in 1980.

Ratzinger said a slap in the face was the easiest reaction to a failure to perform or a poor performance, and the force of the slap varied widely.

Whether the latest reports will lead to any further information on what George Ratzinger knew, and when, is uncertain.

The Regensburg diocese published the new report on its website Friday, along with a year-old homily by Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer in which he expressed regret for the abuse the children allegedly suffered.

The diocese has previously offered to pay 2,500 euros in damages to each of the victims.

Pope Emeritus Benedict, who retired in February 2013 (Pope Francis was elected at a conclave the next month), in 88 and lives in seclusion in a monastery inside the Vatican walls in Rome.

As Cardinal Ratzinger, the longtime guardian of orthodoxy at the Vatican, he had publicly downplayed the extent of the abuse or the notion of a cover-up, saying reports of abuse by clergy and in church settings were exaggerated by the media.

But following his election as pope, and as investigations continue to reveal the breadth and depth of the scandal, Benedict began to institute firmer discipline and more effective prevention policies than had his predecessor, Saint John Paul II.

(David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS who covers the Vatican and the Catholic Church)