Vatican on defense as sex scandals build


POSTED: Wednesday, March 10, 2010

ROME » Defending itself against a growing child sexual abuse scandal in Europe, one that has even come close to the brother of Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican said Tuesday that local European churches had addressed the issue with “;timely and decisive action.”;

In a note read on Vatican Radio, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, cautioned against limiting the concerns over child sexual abuse to Roman Catholic institutions, noting that the problem also affected the broader society.

A wave of church sexual abuse scandals has emerged in recent weeks in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands, adding to the fallout from a broad abuse investigation in Ireland.

In his note, Lombardi said local churches had demonstrated “;a desire for transparency, and in a certain sense, accelerated the emergence of the problem by inviting victims to speak out, even when the cases involved dates from many years ago,”; he said.

He noted that in Austria, 17 abuse cases were found in Catholic institutions, while in the same period 510 abuse cases were found “;in other areas.”;

“;It would be as well to concern ourselves also with them,”; he continued.

The newly emerging scandals, especially those in Germany, cut particularly close to Benedict, who was archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982, before spending more than two decades in charge of the Vatican's doctrinal arm, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is ultimately responsible for investigating abuse cases.

Benedict's moral standing in Germany had already been diminished in some eyes by his outreach to a group of schismatic bishops, one of whom, it emerged, had denied the scope of the Holocaust.

The connection to Benedict's brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, comes from accusations of physical and sexual abuse from former students at two Bavarian boarding schools connected to a choir he directed from 1964 to 1994, leading to questions about whether he could have known about the abuse.

According to a statement by the diocese in Regensburg, one former student said he was “;abused through excessive beatings and humiliations, and molested through touching in the genital area”; during “;the early 1960s.”;

And the German magazine Spiegel reported this week on accusations involving one of the schools, quoting a former student, Franz Wittenbrink, as saying that the Etterzhausen boarding school had an “;elaborate system of sadistic punishments combined with sexual lust,”; and that a priest had masturbated with pupils in his apartment.

“;I find it inexplicable that the pope's brother, Georg Ratzinger, who had been cathedral bandmaster since 1964, apparently knew nothing about it,”; the magazine quoted Wittenbrink as saying, adding that a fellow student committed suicide shortly before graduation.

Georg Ratzinger, 86, said in an interview this week with a Bavarian daily newspaper that the sexual accusations referred to a period before his tenure. But he apologized for slapping students before corporal punishment was outlawed in Bavaria in 1980.

“;In the beginning I, too, slapped people in the face, but I always had a bad conscience about it,”; the daily, Passauer Neue Presse, quoted him as saying. He added that if he had known about excessive corporal punishment, “;I would have said something.”;

“;The problem of sexual abuse was never raised,”; Ratzinger said. “;I believe it wasn't just the church that remained silent. It was also clearly the society.”;

In Germany, new cases continue to come to light in the wake of abuse accusations made public in January involving students at the prestigious Canisius Jesuit high school in Berlin in the 1970s and 1980s.

In Austria, Bruno Becker, the head of a Salzburg monastery, resigned Monday after admitting that while studying to be a priest he had sexually abused a boy more than 40 years ago. Last week, the Catholic hierarchy in the Netherlands announced it would open an investigation after former pupils at a monastery school told the Dutch news media about systematic sexual abuse in the 1960s.

In December, several Irish bishops resigned after a report by the Irish government detailed the physical, sexual and emotional abuse of children by Catholic priests in church-run residential schools.

In his note on Tuesday, Lombardi said that the church had made a good start in addressing the “;very serious question”; of sexual abuse of minors, investigating the accusations and showing concern for the victims.

He added that “;the errors committed in ecclesiastical institutions and by church figures are particularly reprehensible because of the church's educational and moral responsibility.”;

Lombardi noted that Benedict had “;demonstrated his own concern”; in tackling the issue by meeting with Irish bishops at the Vatican last month and was preparing an open letter to Irish bishops on the abuse scandal. A Vatican official said the letter could appear as soon as next week.

On Friday, the pope is expected to meet at the Vatican with Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, the head of the German Bishops Conference. A spokesman for the archbishop said the abuse cases would be on the agenda.

Father Lombardi also defended the church's “;specific”; internal procedures for handling abuse cases, noting that canon law does not impose fines or detention, but that it prohibits the exercise of ministry and allowed for the loss of ecclesiastical rights. Under canon law, he said, “;the crime of the sexual abuse of minors has always been considered as one of the most serious of all.”;

A day earlier, Germany's justice minister, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, said the church put up a “;wall of silence”; in abuse cases, proceeding with internal investigations before involving law enforcement. In an interview, she said prosecutors should be brought in as soon as possible.

There is also discussion over whether to extend the statute of limitations in molestation cases, which currently expires 10 years after the accuser turns 18. The archbishop of Bamberg, Ludwig Schick, came out Tuesday in favor of prolonging the statute of limitations to at least 30 years.

Kristina Schroeder, Germany's federal family minister, has called for a round table discussion next month, in which the German bishops' conference plans to participate. In his note, Lombardi said the church was “;naturally ready”; to join the round table. “;Perhaps her own painful experience may also be a useful contribution for others,”; he said.

Rachel Donadio reported from Rome, and Nicholas Kulish from Berlin.