VATICAN CITY — The two Ratzinger brothers have always stood together.
They were both ordained as Catholic priests the same day in the same small German town where they came of age. And they both rose up through the German hierarchy of the Catholic Church, with Joseph eventually joining the Roman Curia and elevated as Pope Benedict XVI, and his brother Georg Ratzinger named a Monsignor.
Now Georg has been implicated in a growing physical and sexual abuse scandal in Germany that dates back to the years when the two brothers served the church in their native Bavaria. There is reportedly growing concern in the Vatican that the pope himself may be implicated in this scandal.
The still-unfolding scandal in Germany is the latest in a string of disturbing sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic church globally in Boston, Ireland, Canada and Australia. It has reverberated around the world and crippled the finances of the Catholic Church in America as a result of enormous lawsuits.
The Vatican has been seen by victims' rights groups particularly in America as too dismissive of these scandals and the damage they have done to the church financially and spiritually.
But now preoccupation is mounting in the Vatican as the growing sex abuse scandal in Germany has directly touched the Pope through his brother, Ratzinger.
Senior officials in the Roman Curia are now worried, as the Italian daily La Repubblica reported on Wednesday, that the scandal will eventually reach the Pope himself and put into question whether — and how much — he knew of abuse cases during his tenure as Archbishop of Munich between 1977 and 1981.
Tension has been palpable since cases of child molestation and violence were reported in the school that trained singers for the renowned Domspatzen Choir of Regensburg, which was directed from 1964 to 1994 by Ratzinger.
In an interview with the German regional daily Neue Passauer Presse on Tuesday, Ratzinger apologized to child victims of sexual abuse at the school, while maintaining that he was unaware of the alleged incidents.
Ratzinger admitted to slapping some pupils early in his career but said that he “always had a troubled conscience about it” and “was happy when physical punishments were completely forbidden in 1980 by legislation.” In the Vatican, church officials — speaking on condition of anonymity, as is the norm — showed appreciation for the openness shown by the Pope's brother but questioned the timing and content of his admissions.
Reacting to the crisis, German bishops have called for victims to come forward and denounce their abusers. They've also appointed a bishop as responsible for dealing with abuse cases countrywide and have announced a toughening of their guidelines against child abuse.
In an unusually ample statement, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi praised the German bishops' “timely and decisive action.”
“They have demonstrated their 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.
But there is now fear that new cases might surface. Episodes of pedophilia and brutal physical violence are already being investigated by prosecutors at the Benedictine monastery of Ettal, in Bavaria, which falls under the church jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Munich.
The current leadership of the monastery has resigned, taking full responsibility for the cases, which date from the 1970s to the early 1990s, according to a "special mediator" appointed by the monks.
The Vatican has announced it will send an "apostolic visitor," or investigator, to examine the situation at the monastery. But Christian Weisner, spokesman for the Catholic reform movement We Are Church, challenged the Pope to explain “what he knew then and why he acted as he did.”
“Joseph Ratzinger was bishop of Munich from 1977 to 1981, so he has to answer the question,” he said in a statement.
More cases of abuses seem also bound to come up at the Domspatzen Choir. The director and composer Franz Wittenbrink, who lived in the choir preparatory school until 1967, told Der Spiegel magazine that an “elaborate system of sadistic punishments combined with sexual lust” was in place in the school. He said the headmaster at the time “would choose two or three of us boys in the dormitories in the evenings and take them to his flat. Everyone knew about it.” He added, “I find it inexplicable that the Pope's brother Georg Ratzinger, who had been cathedral bandmaster since 1964, apparently knew nothing about it.”
From English-speaking countries such as the U.S. and Ireland, the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church is now spreading quickly through Europe. Sex abuse victims have come forward in 19 of Germany's 27 dioceses, as well as Austria and Holland, where the bishops have ordered an independent investigation. The president of the German bishops, Robert Zollitsch, will be in Rome today for a meeting with the Pope. The audience had already been scheduled for weeks but talks will be inevitably dominated by the abuse issue.
The scandal has also renewed friction between the Vatican and German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government. Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger has accused the church of covering up the scandals and pressed the bishops to cooperate with prosecutors. Germany's Catholic Church now seems willing to take part in “round table” talks about child abuse in schools, together with Protestant leaders, family associations and local officials. It had earlier and somewhat indignantly rejected calls for an investigation into Catholic schools only.