News / Europe

Catholic Church Inundated with Sexual Abuse Allegations

Alleged misconduct by Catholic priests continues to surface and the church is struggling to contain the damage. VOA's Mariana Schroeder looks at how these allegations are haunting the church in Germany, the pope's homeland.

Mariana Schroeder

This week Pope Benedict XVI accepted the resignation of an Irish bishop over his handling of child abuse cases since 1995 and the German government set up a special panel to look into sexual abuse allegations in the Catholic Church and elsewhere.

Allegations of abuse continue to flood church offices and help groups in Germany.  A number of task forces have already been set up where victims of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests can tell their stories and ask for help. Now the German government has set up an expert panel and the Bishop's Conference in Germany has announced a special papal aide hot line which starts operations the end of this month.

Munich lies in the heartland of Germany's Catholics.  It's here that Pope Benedict, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was archbishop in the 1980's.  And, many of the alleged abuses occurred during that time.  In one case now being examined, a priest alleged to have abused students was transferred to Munich from another diocese.  Questions have been raised about what Cardinal Ratzinger may have known about this case and others.

Allegations surfaced this week that Pope Benedict, before he became pope, ignored warnings about a priest in Milwaukee. The information comes from two lawyers who filed lawsuits against the Milwaukee Archdiocese. The New York Times cites letters they obtained from Wisconsin bishops to then-Cardinal Ratzinger, asking for action against Father Lawrence Murphy, a Milwaukee priest.

Godehard Bruentrup is a Jesuit priest and professor at the Munich Jesuit College. He says he doubts that Ratzinger knew anything about these cases.

"In the case of Ratzinger he was not directly involved in the reassignment of this priest.  In a large diocese like Munich there is someone charged with assigning priests to various jobs. It is not what the bishop does. So he was not directly involved but he was bishop so there is some indirect responsibility. He probably didn't even know about it," he said.

It's not yet possible to assess the full scope of the problem. Some 120 cases have been reported to the sex abuse task force set up this month in Munich.  Bruentrup says he knows of some 300 other cases that the Jesuits are examining.

Some victims have come forward publicly and appeared on German television, sometimes with graphic accounts of alleged abuse at the hands of Catholic priests.

Rainer Maria Schiesser, a parish priest in Munich, speaking through a translator, tells VOA victims have contacted him by phone.

"They are elderly men, who are now well over sixty and are still suffering. It is not just the physical pain, which also occurred, but it is the spiritual hurt they suffer. Their trust was misused, their friendship was violently misused, the joy of living was turned into darkness," he said.

Allegations of similar abuse have surfaced in the past in places like the United States and more recently in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe.

The pope has accepted the resignation of one Irish bishop, but others have been implicated in the cover up of abuse cases. Pope Benedict took the highly unusual step of sending a letter to the Irish Church criticizing some bishops for mishandling abuse cases, but some Catholics in Germany express disappointment that there is no word from the pope about cases in his homeland.  

Jesuit priest, Godehard Bruentrup, says he is not surprised the pope has remained silent.

"The pastoral letter to the Irish bishops has been in preparation for months…  I think he will sooner or later address the German church," he said.  "It may be wise to let the German bishops find out what happened and when the dust settles, and we have a clear view that he speaks. I hope he will do this," he said.

Many German Catholics say the church will have to make many changes to prevent such scandals from happening in the future.  But, they say change in the Catholic Church has always been slow in coming.

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