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World News

German Catholic sex abuse scandals draw link to pope

PARIS (Reuters) - In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that if anyone leads innocent children to sin, “it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

Pope Benedict XVI strolls in a garden with his brother Bishop Georg Ratzinger during his annual holiday in Bressanone, northern Italy July 31, 2008. REUTERS/Osservatore Romano

That passage must now be ringing in the ears of the Roman Catholic clergy in Germany and the Netherlands, where the Church’s latest scandals of priests sexually abusing boys have broken out, and echoing down the marbled halls of the Vatican.

The alarm bells are tolling all the more urgently in Rome, where tenuous links run from Bavarian boarding schools all the way to the German-born Pope Benedict. Critics are asking what he knew and did then and what he will do now.

His brother, Rev. Georg Ratzinger, has admitted to slapping boys in his Regensburg choir repeatedly. Ettal Abbey, scene of brutal beatings and sexual abuse in the past, is located in the archdiocese the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once headed.

“Joseph Ratzinger was bishop of Munich from 1977 to 1981, so he has to answer the qustion of what he knew then and why he acted as he did,” Christian Weisner, spokesman for a critical lay movement called We Are Church, said in a statement.

“He’s affected because he’s German,” said Rev. Andreas Batlogg, editor in chief of the German Jesuit monthly Stimmen der Zeit. “Naturally, everybody’s probably nervous (in the Vatican) about whether anything comes out of Munich too.”

MASSIVE LOSS OF TRUST

Benedict is due to issue a letter to Ireland’s Catholics about their scandals soon and Batlogg said it might be expanded to comment on Germany. “That letter will be important,” he said.

Benedict has repeatedly denounced clerical sex abuse, far more than his predecessor Pope John Paul did, and there have not been charges of it under his direct responsibility in Munich.

But as his brother’s confession showed, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule reigned in the German Church as it did in Ireland and the United States, where earlier scandals exposed a culture of secrecy and a policy of protecting Church interests.

In addition, politicians and the public have lost patience with the once mighty institution. “There has been a massive loss of trust,” Batlogg told Reuters from his office in Munich.

That has been evident in Berlin, where Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger has accused the Vatican of covering up the scandals and pressed the bishops to cooperate with prosecutors “like in Ireland”.

Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, the top German Catholic bishop who will hold talks with Benedict at the Vatican on Friday, reacted testily and accused her of bashing the Church. He later admitted the bishops had underestimated the problem.

Zollitsch rejected calls for an inquiry only into Catholic schools. The Church seems set to join Protestant leaders, family associations and school and local officials at “round table” talks called by the government to investigate all schools.

Rev Klaus Mertes, the Jesuit boarding school director in Berlin who first exposed abuse cases there in January, said the Church could only recover by discussing its problems openly, including the issue of the sexuality of its celibate priests.

“Silence is like petrol for abusers’ motors. This can only be stopped by making it public,” he told the Tagesspiegel daily.

SILENCE AND COMPENSATION

Benedict’s involvement with the abuse scandals runs deeper than just his German roots.

When he was the Vatican’s top doctrinal official before becoming pope, he oversaw the Church’s handling of abuse charges against priests and instructed bishops that consultations on such cases were bound by “the pontifical secret”.

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi has denied that the 2001 directive with that phrase fostered “a culture of silence”, but that argument many not convince many Church critics now.

Benedict called all Irish bishops to Rome for a summit last month, but shied away from disciplining them despite widespread expectations in Ireland of a hierarchy shake-up after two damning government reports last year shocked the nation.

Irish dioceses paid out over 25 million euros in damages before this crisis and victims have now asked for 1 billion euros in compensation. One bishop met with shock and refusal when he urged Catholics in his diocese to help pay the bills.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, the second-highest German at the Vatican, has called for a “clean-out” in his native Church and suggested it would also have to pay damages to the victims.

Claims against the German Church could be high, but probably lower than those faced by 7 American dioceses and the Jesuit province of Oregon that have sought bankruptcy protection because of huge damages U.S. courts have ordered them to pay.

SEVERE HEAD WINDS

The Dutch bishops, facing a wave of abuse charges, agreed on Tuesday to an independent probe by a former education minister.

“By opting for an independent inquiry led by a Protestant, the Dutch bishops avoid the charge they want to control the case and cover up things as they wish,” the Dutch daily Trouw said.

In Austria, where a monastery archabbot resigned on Monday after confessing to abusing a boy 40 years ago, Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn said the Church had to “call guilt by its name” and openly discuss taboo issues such as celibacy, priestly training and changed social attitudes to sex.

“We face severe head winds,” Schoenborn, whose predecessor quit amid sexual abuse charges in 1995, wrote in a Church newsletter. “We stand here ashamed and sullied.”

editing by Ralph Boulton

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