Richard Owen, Rome| March 11, 2010| From The Times|
The Pope’s brother gave a rare insight yesterday into a pervasive culture of violence at Roman Catholic institutions, admitting that he hit children while he was choirmaster at a German boarding school.
Georg Ratzinger led Germany’s leading Catholic boys’ choir, the Regensburger Domspatzen, for 30 years until 1994. The school and its choir are at the centre of allegations of sexual abuse over several decades.
In an interview with the Catholic newspaper Passauer Neue Presse, Monsignor Ratzinger, 86, said that he had no knowledge of sexual abuse but admitted that boys were often punished harshly, sometimes in an arbitrary manner. “I myself handed out slaps repeatedly, although I always had a bad conscience about it,” he said.
Mgr Ratzinger said that although conducting the choir was “always a joy”, he had often become depressed when things did not go as he wished during choir practice.
Clipping boys around the ears, he said, was a “standard response to failure or misbehaviour”. However, he added: “I was happy when in 1980 corporal punishment was banned by law.” He asked victims for forgiveness.
The Catholic Church in Germany, like in the US and Ireland, has been rocked by revelations of physical and sexual abuse. Catholic bishops in the Netherlands announced an inquiry yesterday — to be conducted by a Protestant — after 200 alleged abuse victims came forward.
The Vatican has condemned the mistreatment of children by clergy and says that Catholic authorities in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands acted quickly when they learnt of the allegations.
“Mistakes made by the institutions under the responsibility of the clergy are especially reprehensible, given the educative and moral responsibility of the Church,” Federico Lombardi, the Pope’s spokesman, said.
However, liberal Catholics, especially in Germany, have questioned how much the Pope knew of sexual abuse in his country’s Church when he was a professor of theology in Germany in the 1960s — including a stint in Regensburg — and Archbishop of Munich and Freising from 1977 to 1982.
The German Government has gone so far as to accuse the Vatican of suppressing the truth. On Monday Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, the Justice Minister, said that a wall of silence was imposed on Catholic-run schools by a 2001 Vatican directive that declared cases of abuse “subject to papal confidentiality”. It was issued at a time when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the current Pope, was head of doctrine.
The Vatican has switched to crisis management amid the sex abuse allegations and threats of lawsuits across Europe and North America.
Last month the Pope summoned Irish bishops to Rome and lectured them about the “heinous crime” of sexual abuse. He is due to issue a pastoral letter on the subject before Easter to Irish Catholics.
In Germany the allegations surfaced in January, when a leading Jesuit school in Berlin admitted sexual abuse of its pupils by two priests in the 1970s and 1980s. Other Catholic schools have since been implicated as more victims have come forward. A delegation of German bishops, headed by Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, will meet the Pope on Friday to discuss the claims.
Mgr Ratzinger pleaded ignorance about paedophile priests but admitted that some boys at the Regensburg school had been treated brutally. In the interview he spoke about the “very violent” headmaster who was in charge between 1953 and 1992 named only as Johann M.
“I knew that Headmaster M often handed out severe slaps — and also that these slaps were often delivered at the smallest of pretexts,” Mgr Ratzinger said. He added that he was a low-ranking functionary within the school hierarchy — “practically a king without a kingdom” — and was unable to intervene. Some former pupils described the headmaster as a sadist who imposed “a reign of terror”, and said that they found it improbable that the choirmaster knew nothing about the sex abuse.
Mgr Ratzinger said that he was willing to testify to inquiries into abuse but told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica: “I was not with the choir when the cases being referred to happened. The events being referred to date back 60 or more than 50 years ago.”
When he was choirmaster he had to exercised discipline to achieve “a high musical and artistic level” but not terror, he said. The problem of sexual abuse “was never discussed. At the beginning of my time there were a lot of problems with the reorganisation of the choir, which were the main focus of interest”.
Franz Wittenbrink, a composer who was a pupil at the school, told the magazine Der Spiegel that there was an “ingenious system of sadistic punishments connected to sexual pleasure” and said that the headmaster had a habit of “taking two or three boys into his room in the evenings”.
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