ROME — The priests at the Regensburg, Bavaria, boarding school for boys liked to make the students take off their clothes and bend over for either a violent whipping or forcible anal sex. Sometimes the priests made them drink red wine. Sometimes the priests masturbated in front of the children. Other times they made the children masturbate for them, perform oral sex or fondle each other.
The complaint is not about just one or two isolated cases. At least 231 and more likely as many as 700 boys who attended the school between 1953 and 1992 were subjected to what has been described by the victims as “ritual abuse,” according to Ulrich Weber, a German lawyer commissioned by the choir who represents the alleged victims. “I have here 231 reports of physical abuse,” Weber told reporters at a press conference in Regensburg on Friday when he presented a report based on an eight-month investigation into the alleged abuse. “The abuse ranges from sexual assault and rape to food deprivation to the boys who were less cooperative.”
The bulk of the abuse, which also included canings, forced gluttony and anal penetration with foreign objects, happened in the mid-1970s to boys being groomed for the world-famous Domspatzen boys choir of Regensberg’s St. Peter’s Cathedral when a certain Father Georg Ratzinger was the choir leader. Ratzinger, who will turn 92 next month, is the elder brother of Josef Ratzinger, better known as Pope Benedict XVI. He conducted the choir from 1964 to 1994. When asked if Ratzinger knew what was going on, Weber said, “After my research, I must assume so.”
In 2010, when hints of the abuse first surfaced, the elder Ratzinger publicly apologized for “slapping students” but denied being aware of the violent abuse that was apparently rampant at the school, though he apparently hinted that he had heard rumors of abuse taking place on choir trips. “I always had a bad conscience and I was happy when in 1980 corporal punishment was banned by lawmakers,” the pope’s elder brother said, describing the physical abuse as “the normal reaction to failings or disobedience” for offenses like a bad choral performance or adolescent tomfoolery.
The recent revelations of the extent of the sexual abuse at the Regensberg Catholic school trump original estimates that only a handful of young boys were abused. In 2010, just two years before Benedict retired, the Holy See insisted that “the abuse was limited.” Investigators then put the number of credible complaints at around 70 cases, for which they offered a settlement sum of around $2,700.
That’s when Weber was commissioned by the Domspatzen choir administrators to start collecting complaints. So far he has 231 but he told reporters that he estimates that as many as one-third of the 2,100 students who attended the school over four decades were subject to varying forms of unimaginable abuse and maltreatment.
By those estimates, around 700 boys were abused, and because the statute of limitations has long run out and most of the abusive predatory priests are dead, justice will never be served.
The prestigious choir dates back to the year 975 and grew to become one of the most famous musical training schools for boys, producing a number of successful composers and directors including Franz Wittenbrink, who came forward when the allegations of abuse first surfaced. In 2010, he told investigators that priests at the Regensburg boarding school engaged in what he described as “an elaborate system of sadistic punishments combined with sexual lust.”
He said that he and several other boys were often “chosen” to be invited by the headmaster at the time to his personal apartment where they were plied with red wine and made to perform sex acts on the headmaster and on each other. “Everyone knew about it at the time,” he said in 2010.
Whether the elder Ratzinger told his younger brother about the abuse remains dubious, especially given that the younger Ratzinger served as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church’s former Inquisition office that now sees to the interpretation and enforcement of church doctrine, before being tapped as pontiff. If he had been informed, he would have been in a prime position to expose it. The recent revelations of the extent of abuse will seal Benedict’s record on the greatest scandal to rock the Catholic Church as weak, at best.
The Vatican under Pope Francis has been far more transparent and apologetic about the crimes and systematic coverup of abuse than Benedict ever was, but so far even Francis has remained silent on the recent reports from Regensburg.
To his credit, the current bishop of the Regensburg diocese, Rudolf Voderholzer, did make a public apology after Friday’s news conference, even publishing Weber’s detailed report of allegations on the diocese’s website. “It hurts me and my soul—behind every single case is a human being, a child’s soul severely tortured and often marked for life by these acts,” he wrote. “I cannot undo it and can only ask the victims for forgiveness.”
But the sort of mercy it would take to forgive the type of unthinkable abuse most of the boys underwent is almost as unimaginable as the actual crimes and how they could have possibly stayed covered up for so long.