A new drama for the Church, but also an opportunity to clarify, and to eliminate any impression of a new cover-up of abuse.
Before trying to reconstruct exactly what we do and don’t know about the presumed abuse of choirboys of the Regensburg Cathedral Choir — which occurred from 1945 to around 1990 — it’s good to bear in mind that this investigation was initiated by the Church, and in particular by Pope Benedict XVI, who in 2010 strongly desired that this matter be confronted decisively.
The facts according to the investigator
Assigned by the diocese to investigate the matter, lawyer Ulrich Weber asserts that at least 547 boys who were members of the Regensburg Cathedral boys choir were victims of physical and psychological abuse between 1945 and the early 1990s. Among them, 67 suffered sexual abuse. Although prosecution would be difficult due to statutes of limitation, Weber was able to identify 49 of the perpetrators. In an earlier report, in January 2016, Weber had only related 231 cases of abuse and mistreatment, including rape, being struck, and deprivation of food (Repubblica, July 18). As reported by Repubblica:
Two male religious were already brought before German courts on account of abuse: they were a former religion teacher and vice-director of the aforementioned grammar/high school, fired in 1958, and a former director of the dormitory, condemned in 1971. Both died in 1984.
Weber’s report indicates the main perpetrator of abuse was Johan Meier, director of the school affiliated with the choir between 1953 and 1992. Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, brother of the Pope Emeritus was on the board of directors. Meier died shortly after retirement, in circumstances that are still unclear.
Witnesses reported wooden stools being launched against students – once he had broken one on a child’s shoulder – or the habit of bringing two or three children, usually between 8 and 9, to his room, offer them alcohol and then punish them. (Vatican Insider, July 18)
Did Msgr. Georg Ratzinger know?
Naturally, this is a question that many people ask themselves, some with anguish and concern, others with malice, in the hopes of smearing Benedict XVI. The question is controversial, and the answer will surely be painful. Georg Ratzinger was the director of the “Songbirds of the Cathedral” Choir from 1964 to 1994. The Corriere della Sera explains the exact structure of the school connected to the choir, an important factor which has not always been made clear by the press:
The Regensburger Domspatzen is an institution divided into three sections: the high school (Gymnasium), governed by a lay Director; the dormitory (Internat), directed by a priest with the assistance of educators; and lastly, the choir, directed by the Domkapellmeister, the Cathedral Choirmaster, a position held for thirty years by Georg Ratzinger. The grammar school is connected, but distinct. “I was occupied with music,” said the “Pope’s brother” when the case exploded. He admits that some children from the elementary school had told him about violent corporal punishments, and that Johann Meier, the director, was described as “sadistic,” but he said that he had never thought of “intervening in any way” because the Vorschule of Etterzhausen “was a completely independent institution” and he would have been able to do little. (July 17)
He also told Corriere that he was willing to testify in the investigation regarding pedophilia, if necessary, “even though I never heard of any cases of that kind.” It is good to “clarify things,” but “I hope that the Choir isn’t involved in this situation.”
Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, as said above, has always denied knowing about episodes of sexual violence;
…in an interview with the Bavarian conservative newspaper “Passauer Neue Presse,” he stated that some boys had told him about some strange episodes that took place in the training school which, however, did not induce him to think he had to intervene in some way, “If I had been aware of the excessive violence used, I would have done something.” Weber had questioned Benedict XVI’s brother’ statements: “I believe he is not telling the whole truth,” he said. Today at the press conference, he accused him of “co-responsibility” because – he said – “he pretended not to see or otherwise failed to intervene.” (Vatican Insider, July 18)
Is Cardinal Muller also responsible?
The cardinal was bishop of Regensburg from 2002 to 2012, and then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith until last July 1. In 2010, he admitted that abuse had existed, and he has been called to task by Weber for how he handled the matter when the first accusations came to light that year. Essentially, the accusation is that he minimized the situation, did not want to bring to light whatever had happened in the Choir, and that he showed little empathy towards the victims, whom he has never wanted to meet.
Avoiding manipulative interpretations, without ceasing to seek the truth
From the beginning, then: the investigation was initiated by the Church, right from the very top: the Pope. It is thanks to this desire to clarify the truth in this situation that the Church can examine itself today; it is painful, but necessary. The code of silence with which in many cases—not just this one—the ecclesial community has, until now, silenced victims is a betrayal of the Crucified Lord. Whosoever serves Jesus Christ, serves innocent victims, and consequently any other consideration takes second place.
“This is the road that we must follow as a Church, even if it is ugly for us and it hurts us. We must face up to it: The Lord taught us not to be afraid—The truth will set you free.” These are the words of Fr. Hans Zollner, the Jesuit at the head of the Center for Child Protection, professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University, and member of the Commission for the Protection of Minors. Today, he gave two interviews, one to the Corriere and another to Repubblica, in which, one hand, he explains on the context (in the 1960s and 70s, corporal punishment was in common use, even in public schools), and on the other, he defends the integrity of both Cardinal Muller (reminding us that Fr. Inzoli—a pedophile—was expelled from the priesthood due to Muller’s intervention) and Msgr. Ratzinger (explaining that the school and the choir are separate entities). Fr. Zollner insists on one point: the Church must not cease purifying itself, and must not be afraid to face these situations. As Federico Pichetto also says in Sussidiario:
The Church has abandoned humanity, and humanity—our being human—has often abandoned the Church. Consequently […] many of the examples passed on to the people of our time are like vaccines: they transmit just enough Christianity in order to immunize entire areas of life, entire regions, entire nations. Our behavior has vaccinated the West against Christianity and has left, in the hearts of many, resentment in which ideology has found fertile ground. We should not think that behind all of this there is nothing but a relentless anti-Christian Masonic campaign. There is also a part of our own story and of our own evil, which only the strength of the Popes is giving us the courage to face. The only way to overcome a vaccine is if the disease hits us so hard that it reverses everything. The only hope for our time is for Christianity to be lived with such seriousness and radicalness that it overwhelms every vaccine; that it brings mankind face to face with the Mystery of God who, looking upon those children abused at our hands, weeps, and continues to ask simply for a new beginning: the conversion of our hearts.