Will German Catholic church abuse case reach Pope Benedict?

Investigations into charges of sexual and physical abuse of children by German Catholic priests are getting under way, and involve a choir run by Pope Benedict's brother. Did the pontiff know about the allegations when he was a bishop in his home country? "We do not know," a German Catholic church spokesman said.

By , Correspondent

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    General view to the entrance of the Regensburger Domspatzen boys' choir school in Regensburg, southern Germany, on Wednesday. Pope Benedict's brother, Georg Ratzinger, was in charge of the choir from 1964 to 1994.
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German Catholic church authorities here launched two intertwined investigations Wednesday into allegations of abuse by members of the clergy. One is looking into allegations about the brother of Pope Benedict XVI and the second into how much members of the German clergy – including the German-born pope - knew about the allegations, which date back to the 1950s.

The pope’s older brother, Rev. Georg Ratzinger, was in charge of the select Regensburger Domspatzen boys’ choir from 1964 to 1994. Members of that choir have alleged in recent weeks that choir leaders physically and sexually assaulted them on numerous occasions.

The Catholic diocese of Regensburg in southern Germany has appointed independent lawyer Andreas Scheulen to head the investigation. Rev. Ratzinger told Passauer Neue Presse, a German daily, that the sexual abuse allegations occurred before he was in charge of the choir, but said that he was not aware of the problem. He also told the German newspaper that he had slapped members of the choir in the 1960s, a common practice in Catholic schools at the time.

The emerging scandal about abusive priests and a possible cover-up by Church leaders comes after a string of similar allegations against the church in recent years that has left many Catholics disillusioned and questioning the Vatican's moral leadership.

In 2002, church leaders in Boston were found to have shuffled priests around to other dioceses when allegations of pedophilia surfaced against them in the Boston Globe. That scandal, plus similar ones in Texas, California, and elsewhere, have cost the church hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements with victims. This past December, a government inquiry in Ireland found church leaders and the Irish police covered up sexual abuse of children there for over 30 years.

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Mr. Scheulen’s investigation is expected to be finished in a few weeks. Rev. Ratzinger did not return calls for comment, but has publicly asked for forgiveness.

The second investigation will be conducted by the Catholic diocese of Regensburg in southern Germany and will explore allegations that boys were sexually and physically abused at Catholic schools around Germany. So far, more than 170 former students have accused clergy members of sexual or physical abuse.

When asked if Pope Benedict, who served as bishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982, had any direct knowledge of the allegations of abuse, German Bishop’s Conference spokesman Karl Juesten told the Associated Press, "We do not know if the pope knew about the abuse cases at the time.”

These cases include allegations of naked beatings, fondling, and sodomy.

Similarities with US cover-up?

There are similarities between the cover-up of sexual abuse in US Catholic schools and the case unfolding now in Germany. As in the United States, the initial allegations were made through the media - in this case, Der Spiegel, a widely read German magazine known for its investigative reporting.

In January, the magazine reported a series of allegations about a Catholic school in Berlin. After the initial allegations, additional people came forward with similar stories. With each new allegation came revelations that the church knew about the accusations, but did nothing to stop them except to shuffle accused priests around the country.

Germans, about 30 percent of whom are Catholic, reacted with outrage in the early days of the scandal. As it has unfolded, outrage has turned to stunned shock as Pope Benedict, beloved here as the first German pope, has been drawn closer to the scandal.

"The pope, as a German pope is affected," Andreas Batlogg, a Jesuit priest and editor of the Catholic magazine Stimmen der Zeit, said from his office in Munich. "There is some concern that during his time in Munich there might have been some cases of abuse."

Batlogg added that "there is a moral responsibility to make this right."

German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger has called for direct talks with the Vatican, while Education Minister Annette Schavan said she plans to explore new ways to impose measures to stop future cases of abuse.

The German media beyond Der Spiegel is now following the story, with some journalists beginning to question how Pope Benedict, as bishop of one of the most important dioceses in Germany, could not have been aware of the allegations.

Benedict is expected to meet with Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, head of the German’s Bishops Conference, at the Vatican on Friday to discuss the investigations. German bishops are also expected to participate in a roundtable with the pope on how to stop future abuses.

"There cases have now come to Germany, to Europe," Dr. Batlogg said. "It is a very, very difficult time. Every priest will be under suspicion."

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