| 5.1°C Dublin

The Pope, his brother and a Church reeling from scandal

The time is 7am and an old, almost blind priest makes his way to the altar of the small St Johann church tucked in the shadows of the mighty Regensburg Cathedral in Germany.

Later, after Mass, I try to approach the 86-year-old cleric and he waves his white stick at me, fending off the unknown, the nosy press.

Maybe Georg Ratzinger, the former choir director of Germany's Domspatzen -- the celebrated Cathedral Sparrows -- was in a hurry to get to breakfast. But there's no doubt that he and his younger brother Joseph -- now better known as Pope Benedict XVI -- are on the defensive.

The revelations of priestly paedophilia sweeping through the Catholic world are shaking the trust of hundreds of thousands of ordinary believers. About 300 alleged victims have come forward in the past weeks and many more add their voices every day.


Father Ratzinger's cathedral choir is one of a dozen Catholic teaching establishments where children were abused by priests. Benedictines, Capuchins, Jesuits; all the great church orders are having to deal with adults seriously damaged by their school years.

Compared with the disclosures here in Ireland and in American Catholic communities, the scale in Germany is modest, but the Pope is plainly rattled: the Church could soon be exposed to an unprecedented level of state intervention.

The German government is demanding that state prosecutors investigate because, apparently, the church leadership cannot be trusted to put its own institutions in order.

To fight off this intrusion, the Pope has to ensure that national churches are not only sympathetic to the victims but also candid about the past. That threatens the Church's centuries-old tradition of secrecy -- and the serious organisational mismanagement it has been masking.

The Pope faces more than a chorus of angry victims: he is being confronted with an institutional crisis. "It's becoming like a tsunami," said the head of the German Benedictine order, Abbot Notker Wolf. "The Holy Father is suffering very acutely."

Many of the institutions where sexual abuse or harassment took place are in Bavaria and are known to the Pope when he was Archbishop of Munich. His proximity to the crime scene has rattled the German church leadership.

So far, the only direct link between the Pope and the child abuse cases is Father Peter Hullermann. After being caught making sexual advances to teenagers in Essen, Father Hullermann was transferred in 1980 to Munich, where Joseph Ratzinger was Archbishop. The future Pope approved the man's transfer on condition that he received weekly therapy -- but he was also given a job in a Munich parish that allowed him regular contact with children. In 1986, he was given a suspended jail term for sexual abuse.

Joseph Ratzinger almost certainly knew nothing of the later career trajectory of Father Hullermann, but a pattern had been set: he was shifted around Bavaria; to Garching parish, well known to the Ratzinger brothers, and on to the spa town of Bad Tolz. When his background was revealed at the Trinity Church in Bad Tolz last Sunday, a parishioner stood up. "I was due to have my marriage blessed by Father Hullermann," he shouted. "Why weren't we told?"

The priest, Father Rupert Frania, said: "What could I tell him? I, too, wasn't told -- I feel like a sacrificed pawn in a much bigger game."

A spokesman for the Munich bishop's office, however, claims that Father Frania did know. Father Hullermann -- by all accounts a popular figure -- has duly been suspended and at least one administrator has been dismissed, yet the confusion about the case lingers on. The impression is that the Church has ordered the shutters to be brought down on it and quickly.

The reason is clear: church institutions are hierarchical. If you head a diocese, and you are conscientious, you generally know what is going on in the parishes. The big test of the Church will be to convince ordinary believers that knowledge about abuse was confined to a small circle.

Miguel Abrantes Ostrowski (37) a respected stage actor, was one of the first to blow the whistle. He was a pupil at a Jesuit school in Bonn, the Aloisiuskolleg, between 1983 and 1993. Ten years later he wrote a lightly fictionalised account of his years at the school.


"It wasn't just paedophilia, it was power abuse," said Mr Ostrowski. "It was tolerated. The rector (who has recently stepped down to allow investigations against him) was the protege of his predecessor. There was no control over his power.

"One priest would shower naked with us. And we would regularly have our temperatures taken with a thermometer pushed into our bottoms." Photographs were taken then, too.

Worse cases are being reported -- including instances of boys being passed from priest to priest as sexual playthings -- but they all boil down to the teachers feeling that they were somehow beyond the gaze of the law.

Most of the cases emerging so far are from the 1950s and late 1960s, when the schools were run with extraordinary brutality.

Life in Catholic establishments has plainly improved over the past decade. Karl Birkenseer, author of a book about the Regensburger Domspatzen, says: "The Second Vatican Council [1962-1965] helped open up the Church and its organisations." After that, he says, came the changes in society itself: the growing influence of parents, access to TV and sources of information that broke the isolation of boarding schools. "It has gotten better."

Georg Ratzinger was a product of his time. He admits now, and publicly regrets, cuffing the ears of his choristers.

"The thing about Georg Ratzinger is that all his anger would subside after choir practice and he would not hold anything against you afterwards," says Mr Birkenseer, who was a Cathedral Sparrow. This week a dozen former Sparrows have come forward to praise his teaching.

Of course, what matters, ultimately, is how much he knew about paedophile teachers.

The first of the recent claims of clerical sex abuse in Germany were made in January by 20 former students of the Canisius College in Berlin. Since then, about 300 former Catholic students have come forward with similar claims, many dating back to the 1950s and 1960s

At least two priests have been suspended but many cannot be taken to the criminal courts because victims must contact police within 10 years of their 18th birthday.

Bishop Stephan Ackermann has been appointed by the Church to probe the allegations. "There were instances of suppression. We were too focused on protecting the perpetrators."