German diocese say 6 accused over abuse

REGENSBURG, Germany (AP) — Four priests and two nuns in the Regensburg diocese are under investigation for sexual abuse allegations, the diocese said Monday, as a wider picture began to emerge of incidents decades ago in the pope's native Bavaria.

Diocese spokesman Clemens Neck said that since allegations first surfaced earlier this month, the church has been pursuing the cases with the goals of achieving justice and help for the victims, punishing the offenders and preventing future crimes.

"The work of the last 14 days has shown us that serious wrongdoing was committed by spiritual leaders and members of the church," Neck said at a press conference called to provide an update on the investigation.

"We deeply regret what the spiritual leaders and church members did to these children and youths, and we ask for forgiveness on their behalf."

In addition to the six now under investigation, about whom further details were not given, Neck said there were two new charges of sexual abuse of a minor by a man identified as Friedrich Z. who was already convicted of abuse charges in 1958, and one new charge against a Georg Z. who was convicted in 1969.

The Regensburg cases come among a spiraling child abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church in Germany, in which some 300 former students have come forward with claims of physical or sexual abuse.

Members of a U.S.-based group arrived in Munich on Monday to encourage more victims in Germany to come forward.

"We want to reach out to any others who have been hurt. We ask them to speak out," said Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

Abuse scandals involving Catholic dioceses, monasteries and other institutions have also hit several other countries, with victims in Ireland, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Italy all coming forward recently with allegations of abuse as well as cover-ups.

Blaine said she hoped that her group, which has some 9,000 members in the U.S., would be able to found a chapter in Germany and other European nations to help victims and pressure the church to report offending priests.

"It is the silence and secrecy that allows the abuse to go on," said Blaine, who along with several other abuse victims from the U.S. set up photographs of themselves as children outside of the offices of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising.

In an unprecedented letter Saturday, Pope Benedict XVI apologized to Ireland for the chronic child abuse within the Catholic Church there

Benedict's message Saturday — the product of weeks of consultation with Irish bishops, who read it aloud at Masses across this predominantly Catholic nation — rebuked Ireland's church leaders for "grave errors of judgment" in failing to observe the church's secretive canon laws.

He also appealed to priests still harboring sins of child molestation to confess.

"Openly acknowledge your guilt, submit yourselves to the demands of justice, but do not despair of God's mercy," he wrote.

German faithful who had been hoping that the pope would address the spate of abuse cases in his homeland were disappointed, however, as Benedict pope made no mention of Germany in the letter.

The allegations of physical abuse in Regensburg are centered around the Etterzhausen school just outside Regensburg — considered a feeder school for the Regensburger Domspatzen boys choir, which was led for three decades by the brother of Pope Benedict XVI, Georg Ratzinger.

Ratzinger, 86, has admitted slapping pupils after he took over the Regensburger Domspatzen boys choir in the 1964 — though such punishments were commonplace in Germany at that time. He also said he was aware of allegations of physical abuse the elementary school, and publicly apologized for doing nothing about it, but he was not aware of sexual abuse.

Neck said that of those accused of sexual abuse, one has been linked to the Regensburger Domspatzen — an assistant teacher who later became a priest identified only as Sturmius W. At that time, the choir was under the leadership of Ratzinger, who directed the Domspatzen until 1994.

In addition to an initial allegation against him already reported, Neck said another victim has now come forward with accusations against the priest, who has been suspended from his duties.

Benedict, 82, was archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982 when he was brought to the Vatican to head the body responsible for investigating abuse cases. During that time, he came under criticism for decreeing that even the most serious abuse cases must first be investigated internally.

Neck said his diocese has three investigators working on the case — one expert to handle accusations of sexual crimes, another to deal with people reporting physical abuse, and an attorney to investigate further the physical abuse cases.

He said seven people have reported incidents of sexual abuse by six people who are still alive. He said others have reported being abused by people who are now dead, but did not give any figures.

In all of the cases the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution has now expired — with allegations against five of the six dating from before the mid-1970s and the accusation against the sixth from 1984.

Still, Neck said, all information was being turned over to the public prosecutors' office for evaluation.

"All concrete allegations are turned over to prosecutors, regardless of whether the statute of limitations has expired," he said. "That is up to prosecutors to decide."