‘Culture of Silence’ Abetted Abuse of at Least 547 Choir Boys, Inquiry Finds
BERLIN — For decades, a “culture of silence” pervaded a Catholic music school where the brother of a future pope directed a renowned boys’ choir, contributing to an environment in which at least 547 children were abused, a lawyer who carried out an investigation of the mistreatment said on Tuesday.
The estimate of the number of children abused was far greater than a previous figure, 231, that the lawyer gave last year.
The choir — the Regensburg Domspatzen, literally the Cathedral Sparrows — dates to the 10th century and continues to perform at Sunday Mass in Regensburg’s 16th-century Gothic cathedral. The choir’s music director from 1964 to 1994 was the Rev. Georg Ratzinger, whose younger brother, Joseph Ratzinger, reigned as Pope Benedict XVI from 2005 to 2013.
Father Ratzinger, now 93, has apologized for slapping boys during his tenure, and said he stopped administering corporal punishment when the church banned it in 1980. He has denied awareness of sexual abuse taking place, and the new investigation does not implicate him in the abuse.
The abuse came to light in 2010, but only after intense pressure from the victims did the diocese call upon an outside lawyer, Ulrich Weber, to conduct an independent inquiry.
Over the past two years, Mr. Weber and a team of colleagues conducted interviews with victims, other former pupils and scanned archives from the years 1945 to 1992.
Over all, Mr. Weber evaluated 616 reports of abuse; he deemed fewer than a dozen not at all plausible; others he determined to be questionable, meaning that the abuse could not be ruled out.
In the remaining cases, 547 in total, the reports of abuse were deemed plausible, based on interviews or other corroborating evidence. Of those cases, 67 are believed to have involved sexual abuse. The others involved various forms of corporal punishment, including ear-twisting and beatings with a cane.
As in other institutions in which longstanding patterns of abuse have come to light, a combination of shame, secrecy and impunity contributed to the abuses at the music school in Regensburg, which is about 70 miles northeast of Munich, in southeastern Germany.
The abuse remained taboo, discussed only among some of the victims, who felt ostracized by their fellow alumni.
The most severe abuse took place among primary-school students in the 1960s and ’70s, mostly boys 9 to 11, living away from home.
“In the three areas of school, choir, musical education and boarding school, many people actively took part in the abuse,” Mr. Weber said.
In the report, dozens of former students described their primary-school years as a “prison,” “hell” or “concentration camp,” he said.
“Many described this time as the darkest period of their lives, dominated by violence, fear and helplessness,” Mr. Weber said.
Survivors expressed relief at the release of the report, but one of them, Udo Kaiser, said it could not restore their stolen childhoods.
“It has been documented,” Mr. Kaiser said in a telephone interview from his home in Munich.
“Everything I have been saying for the past 30 years, when no one believed me, everything I have been fighting for the past seven years is now public.”
The 440-page report did not focus on Father Ratzinger or the question of whether the priest might have turned a blind eye to the abuse, though it does contain a section focused on victims’ recollections of the choir director.
For some, he embodied a musical perfectionist who sought success above all else, while others recalled him as being quick with a slap, and having no compunction against throwing a chair or music stand into the choir.
Many recalled him picking favorites, which meant the best singers had no problems with him, while others were beaten or slapped for singing a wrong note.
When Mr. Weber started his investigation, Father Ratzinger was critical, calling it “insanity” to try to investigate how many slaps had been “doled out” in the institution associated with the choir. He did not have any immediate comment on the latest findings.
The sexual abuse took the form of “leering looks or verbal abuse, to the forced consummation of pornography, unwanted sexual touching to forced sex,” the report said.
Along with the physical and sexual abuse, many victims suffered psychological abuse and bullying from classmates who mirrored the hierarchy and from the school’s strict educational style.
“There was a feeling of permanent control, ranging from regular checks of their clothes closets, to making sure that underpants were being worn beneath their pajamas,” the report said. “The children were under pressure, regarding their academic as well as their musical achievements, in addition to fearing punishment.”
Nevertheless, some victims said that not every former student had been abused, and others had fond memories of their time at the school and their participation in the choir.
This was, the report found, in line with the culture of keeping the abuse behind closed doors, which meant that anyone who was not a victim had a hard time conceiving how it could have been carried out.
Over the years, the report found, this “split reality” led to misunderstandings and rifts among the alumni, some of whom could not fathom what had happened when the revelations began to emerge.
The Regensburg diocese has paid 450,000 euros to victims through a fund established after the attention surrounding the abuse came to light.
The school has also moved to change its culture and instituted steps to prevent and report abuse in recent years, as well as expanding the emphasis to include not only music, but also the children’s well-being, said Roland Büchner, who now directs the choir.
“I sharply condemn this,” Mr. Büchner said on Tuesday. “It must never happen again.”