How High Will the German Catholic Abuse Scandal Go?

Is the Catholic clerical system broken?

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In Europe, the Catholic church is currently embroiled in a sexual abuse scandal akin to the one that hit the United States a few years back. The most recent revelations come from Germany, where Pope Benedict XVI's brother, Georg Ratzinger, was once a choir director. Ratzinger himself has not been implicated in sexual abuse accusations, but he admits to slapping the singers in his Regensburg choir on occasion, as corporal punishment was then fairly common. Some say he also must have known about the alleged sexual abuse going on, though he denies all knowledge.

As with the American cases, the European abuse allegations are sparking wider debate about the Catholic church, particularly as observers wait for some reporter to start looking into the pope's own tenure as archbishop of Munich. How endemic is clerical abuse of children and the subsequent coverup, and can these problems be solved? 
  • How These Cases Could Hit the Pope Close to Home  Pope Benedict XVI is a Bavarian native, and his brother a former choir director in Regensburg, whence some of the accusations originate. "The allegations in Germany," writes Time's Jeff Israely and Tristana Moore, "could have far greater resonance, given the personal implications for Benedict." They are also, Israely and Moore point out, "another reminder of how far the sins of clergy abuse may have reached in the Catholic Church."

  • 'Evidence of a Broader Dysfunction,' writes James Carroll at The Daily Beast. "The nearly universal response of church authorities to these crimes, rising to the level of the papacy itself, is so consistently to protect the abusers and re-victimize the victims as to qualify for the crime of co-conspiracy." The church, he notes, has consistently classified clerical abuse of children as a "horrific crime," but also as "a secret of the  Holy Office." He thinks the coverup culture shows a longstanding "at least passive expectation that sexual frustration would drive some priests to behave badly," while the climate of sexual repression drove priests to single out the vulnerable--children--rather than women. But the result of this entire system? The Church has allowed "priestly abusers to become serial rapists"
  • The Questions to Ask  Michael Sean Winters in America magazine, a Catholic weekly, notes the question many are now wondering about the pope: "what did he know and when did he know it?" Writes Winters, "I would submit that this is the wrong question." He thinks it's obvious by now that the abuses aren't "the product of a bad decision here or lax oversight there." Rather, "the sexual abuse of minors and the cover-up of that abuse were the twin products of a clerical culture that remains largely in place and of a continuing fear that any honest discussion about sexual matters will expose a crisis of belief." How do you address this? Partly, argues Winters, by fighting back against the modern retreat of Catholicism into mere ethics--ethics, particularly in the sexual realm, that many people no longer share. Winters thinks Benedict is well aware of this, and "the perfect man to have at the helm." But he needs to have a zero-tolerance policy on abuse. Winters thinks the "recent spate of resignations by bishops in Ireland was a good start."
  • Your Child's Actually Pretty Safe with a Priest  The Guardian's Andrew Brown, comparing figures that are somewhat apples and oranges, isn't sure the Catholic church's track record with abuse is actually worse than that in the wider population. Though the Catholic abuses are "vile ... whether it is more vile than the record of any other profession is not obvious." The specifics of the situation make it shocking, while it's currently well-reported, which "tends to skew perceptions."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.