March 12, 2010
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The head of Germany's Catholic Church apologised to victims of child abuse by priests and said after meeting Pope Benedict Friday the pontiff had encouraged him to press ahead with tough new measures.
Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, head of the German Bishops' Conference, vowed the German Church would take steps to investigate numerous allegations of abuse in Catholic institutions, to counsel victims and to prevent any recurrence.
But, amid calls within the Church for a discussion of celibacy, Zollitsch strongly denied it was to blame, echoing comments made earlier in day by the pope himself.
"The German bishops are dismayed by what has happened and the acts of violence against children," Zollitsch said after the 45-minute private audience. "A few weeks ago I asked forgiveness from the victims, something which I must repeat today in Rome."
Zollitsch said he had briefed Benedict about the situation in Germany, where more than 100 reports have emerged of abuse at Catholic institutions, including one linked to the prestigious Regensburg choir run by the Pope's brother from 1964 to 1994.
"With great shock, keen interest and deep sadness, the holy father took note of what I had to say," Zollitsch told a news conference, adding they had not discussed Regensburg choir or Rev. Georg Ratzinger, who has admitted to slapping boys.
Zollitsch said he informed the pope of the German Church's plans for tackling the crisis, including the appointment of a special representative on abuse, and Benedict had encouraged their "decisive and courageous" adoption.
The archbishop said the German measures were separate from a rulebook being prepared by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which oversees Catholic doctrine.
With the German Church still collecting information about the total number of abuse cases, Zollitsch also said it was premature to talk about compensation for victims.
As allegations of abuse multiplied in Austria and Holland, the Vatican expressed alarm about the gravity of the crisis this week. Child abuse scandals in Ireland and the United States wreaked havoc on the Church's reputation and finances, with the U.S. Church paying some $2 billion in settlements.
The latest scandal is especially delicate for German-born Benedict, who served as bishop of Munich from 1977 to 1981. With public opinion in Germany boiling as more cases of abuse emerge, the vice president of the Bundestag lower house, Wolfgang Thierse, called for him to apologise for those responsible.
Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, a close ally of the pope, has called for the Church to discuss taboo issues such as celibacy, priestly training and changed social attitudes to sex.
But Benedict Friday praised celibacy as "the sign of full devotion ... an expression of giving oneself to God and to others," making it clear that there no prospect of change.
Zollitsch, the leader of Germany's 26 million Catholics, said experts had found no link between celibacy and cases of abuse or paedophilia by teachers but the Church needed to more openly discuss the reasons why it was important.
"Celibacy is under attack and we will seek to establish a dialogue to better explain what celibacy is," he said.
He noted the German child abuse scandal was not limited to priests alone and he thanked the German government for convening a round-table on the issue for April 23 grouping Catholic and Protestant representatives, civil groups, teachers and victims.
Reports of abuse have emerged this week at the Odenwaldschule near Frankfurt, a secular institution associated with UNESCO, and the prestigious Vienna Boys' Choir, an Austrian cultural icon not linked to the Church.