European Catholics who may have hoped sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic clergy was mostly a North American problem may be waking up to the widespread reality of this crisis. A sudden eruption of stories of abuse emerging from Ireland, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands must be reverberating unpleasantly for victims of abuse in the United States. The scandal has even extended to Pope Benedict. His brother Msgr. Georg Ratzinger served for 30 years as choirmaster at Domspatzen, a school that trains the elite boys' choir of the Regensburg Cathedral. Today he apologized to child victims of sexual and physical abuse at his former school even though he said he was unaware of the incidents of alleged sexual abuse.
In an interview with the German newspaper Neue Passauer Presse, Ratzinger said, "There was never any talk of sexual abuse problems and I had no idea that molestation was taking place."
"I'm deeply sorry for anyone whose spiritual or physical integrity was injured by abuse," said Msgr. Ratzinger. "Today, such things are condemned even more because of greater sensitivities. I also condemn them, and simultaneously ask pardon from the victims." I'm presuming (hoping) that by "such things" he is referring to "mere" corporal punishment of his school boys. More sordid details have already emerged from the past at the Regensburg Cathedral.
Though there is some indication that the church in Europe is determined not to repeat the mistakes made in the United States as the slow torture of the sex abuse crisis played out—stiff-arming prosecutions and avoiding culpability at all costs—with essentially no members of the hierarchy ever held accountable. But quicker efforts to confront the past and reform current structural deficiencies are probably not going to be enough to satisfy anyone, nor should they.
According to CNS:
Cardinal Walter Kasper, a senior German prelate and the Vatican's chief ecumenical official, said in an interview in La Repubblica that priestly sexual abuse must be punished and the church must take responsibility.
"Enough! We need serious housecleaning in our church," he said, adding that "the pope is certainly not standing idly by."
He called the sexual abuse of minors on the part of clergy "a criminal, shameful act and an inexcusable mortal sin."
Cardinal Kasper said, "The Holy Father is right in seeking clarity and demanding zero tolerance toward whoever is stained by such grave sins."
The leadership of the German bishops' conference will be meeting with Pope Benedict March 12 at the Vatican in a perviously scheduled visit that will now certainly be turned over to the rapidly developing sex abuse scandal. The pope already met in February with Irish bishops to discuss their abuse crisis after a scathing independent report accused the Irish church of maintaining a culture of secrecy for many years.
The pope was planning a pastoral letter to Irish Catholics regarding what he called the "heinous crime" of priestly sexual abuse. Cardinal Kasper now suggests that pastoral letter might be worth broadening because "such a difficult problem has emerged not only in Ireland, but in Holland, Germany and the United States, perhaps it deserves a more general analysis that applies to the universal church and not just a single nation."
I guess a pastoral letter couldn't hurt, but bewildered Catholics and people who have endured abuse at the hands of priests and their families need a lot more practical help than even the finest in pastoral platitudes can offer. That means money and therapy and a church that is willing to step forward and beg for forgiveness even as it institutes real change. All the nice words are not enough; there is much work still to do in changing attitudes, unraveling prejudices and practices and uncircling clerical wagons that will stand in the way of a true examination of conscience.
Just listen to Msgr. Ratzinger, who in his "apology" said that while he served at Domspatzen "there was a climate of discipline and rigor ... but also of human understanding, almost like a family." Some family, which tolerated slaps across the face and canings and remained silent about deviant sexual acts against children I can't even describe here without lighting up internet filters.
But behind these reports of abuse at German Catholic schools, Msgr. Ratzinger discerns "a certain animosity toward the church, and I see behind certain claims the intention to speak against the church," the beginning of a blaming-the-messenger strategy that served the church—which by the way, as I grasp the concept, stands for a bit more than just the clerical caste—so poorly in the United States as it confronted this problem.