Catholic authorities in Germany announced two major abuse investigations Wednesday — one into the renowned choir once led by Pope Benedict XVI's brother and another into what everyone, including the pope, knew about the sexual and physical abuse of students.
The Roman Catholic diocese of Regensburg in southern Germany said it appointed an independent investigator to examine the allegations of physical and sexual abuse that have engulfed the prestigious Regensburger Domspatzen boys choir, which was led by the Rev. Georg Ratzinger, the pope's older brother, from 1964 until 1994. So far, the sexual abuse allegations predate Ratzinger's term.
Diocese spokesman Jacob Schoetz said that Nuremberg lawyer Andreas Scheulen was named to lead the inquiry.
"The independent lawyer will thoroughly go through all existing legal papers, all court decisions and any information available," Schoetz said. "We expect to publish first results within the next two weeks."
In addition, the German Bishop's Conference said it would look into wider-ranging allegations across the country after more than 170 students at Catholic schools have said they were sexually or physically abused decades ago.
The conference said it had not launched a formal investigation but had called on parishes and church institutions in Germany to conduct their own examinations. The conference is also seeking expert advice on the issue, prelate Karl Juesten told The Associated Press.
Those local investigations will also examine allegations of sexual abuse at the choir and look into what, if anything, the pope himself knew in his previous position as the archbishop of Munich.
"We do not know if the pope knew about the abuse cases at the time," Juesten said. "However, we assume that this is not the case."
Munich Archbishop Reinhard Marx will be "certainly investigating these questions," he said.
In reaction to the spiraling child abuse scandal, the German government said it would impose stricter rules on educators. Families Minister Kristina Schroeder told the Wiesbadener Kurier daily Wednesday that local authorities will be allowed to ask for a thorough police check on all applicants who are going to work with kids.
Juesten, the liaison between Roman Catholic bishops and the German government, also praised Ratzinger, the pope's brother, for saying sorry to victims on Tuesday for doing nothing decades ago to stop the beating of students.
Ratzinger says students told him of allegations of physical abuse at an elementary school decades ago and apologized for doing nothing about it.
Reached by telephone Wednesday, Ratzinger said he had no further comment on the matter.
Ratzinger had first said he was unaware of any abuse, and Juesten said that others should follow the 86-year-old's lead in coming clean.
"The other perpetrators should follow the example set by Mr. Ratzinger and apologize to the victims for the abuse they have committed," he said.
However, the pope's brother has said he was unaware of allegations of sexual abuse at his own choir — incidents alleged to have occurred before his tenure.
The Roman Catholic Church has been hit by years of abuse claims in the United States, Canada, Ireland, Australia and other countries. Yet the German abuse allegations are particularly sensitive because Germany is the pope's homeland, and because the scandals involve the prestigious choir led by his brother for 30 years.
Juesten said it was not known if Benedict, who served as archbishop of Munich and Freising from 1977 to 1982, was aware of any of the child abuse cases that took place then at Catholic schools and other institutions. Benedict did not oversee the Domspatzen choir, which reported instead to the Regensburg Diocese.
Juesten also called Ratzinger's apology to the victims an act of courage and a "wonderful sign" that all charges would be investigated.
"It is certainly not easy for such a man to publicly apologize," Juesten said.
Schoetz, the spokesman for the Regensburg Diocese, said there were several cases of sexual abuse by two priests at the choir in 1958 and 1959.
"Sentences have been handed down, the accused have been punished and have since died," he said.
However, Scheulen, the lawyer leading the inquiry, will be asked to collect any type of other information or allegations on all possible cases of physical or sexual abuse, Schoetz said.
'Severe beatings were normal'
Franz Wittenbrink, 61, sang in the Regensburger Domspatzen choir from 1958 to 1967, said he was physically abused on a regular basis by the priests at its boarding school.
"Severe beatings were normal, but Ratzinger did not belong to the group of more sadistic abusers," Wittenbrink said in a phone interview with the AP from Hamburg. "But I do accuse him of covering up the abuses."
Wittenbrink said all boys suffered some physical abuse but a "selected group" of students was also abused sexually.
Another former choir boy at Domspatzen told the Bild Zeitung daily that he and other boys were sexually abused by teachers at the choir's boarding school in the 1950s. Manfred von Hove was quoted as saying he "finally wants to have answers and find out who was responsible for the cover-up at the time."
Von Hove also said he planned to sue the Regensburg Diocese for compensation.
Von Hove's telephone number is not listed and he could not be reached for further comment.
Ratzinger has repeatedly said the sexual abuse allegations date from before his tenure as choir director.
"These things were never discussed," Ratzinger told the Passauer Neue Presse daily. "The problem of sexual abuse that has now come to light was never spoken of."
Ratzinger did admit slapping students in the face as punishment for many years, but said he was happy when corporal punishment was made illegal in 1980. Corporal punishment was standard in German schools until the reform movement of the 1960s.
Yet the allegations of beatings from one elementary school at Etterzhausen, however, go far beyond the norm of corporal punishment.
Rudolf Neumaier, a student at Domspatzen Preschool in Pielenhofen in 1981 and 1982, told the AP he was slapped there, witnessed the corporal punishment of other boys, and saw then-director Johann Meier hit an eight-year-old boy with a chair.
Neumaier, who went on to join the Domspatzen choir in Regensburg in 1982, stressed he did not witness or hear about any abuse at the choir boarding school itself. But he said he personally told the pope's brother about the violence at the preschool but Ratzinger did nothing about it.
"I told Ratzinger myself, but he chose not to listen," Neumaier said.
Neumaier said he was shocked to find out that preschool director Meier stayed in his job until 1992.
The schools at Etterzhausen and Pielenhofen, where severe beatings have been reported, were two feeder schools for Ratzinger's choir, and Ratzinger said Tuesday that boys had told him about being mistreated at Etterzhausen but he did not understand how bad it was.
Germany's abuse cases are expected to be brought up Friday at the Vatican when the head of the German bishops conference, Bishop Robert Zollitsch, holds a regular meeting with the pope.
The German government has also announced plans for "round table" meetings involving school, church and other representatives to work on ways of detecting, preventing and dealing with future abuse. The first meeting is set for April 23.