VATICAN CITY | Church abuse scandals in Germany have reached the older brother of Pope Benedict XVI and are creeping ever closer to the pontiff himself.
While there has been no suggestion of wrongdoing by Benedict, the launch of an inquiry by German Catholic officials after his brother admitted he slapped children years ago is stirring Vatican fears of a major crisis for the papacy.
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.
Since then, Benedict has taken a strong stand against abuse by clerics in the Roman Catholic Church.
Just weeks before he became pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger caused a stir when he denounced “filth” in the church and among priests — a condemnation taken as a reference to clerical sex abuse.
German church officials said Wednesday they will examine what — if anything — Benedict knew about abuse during his time as Munich archbishop.
“We do not know if the pope knew about the abuse cases at the time,” church spokesman Karl Juesten said.
He said the church “assumes” Benedict knew nothing of such cases, but that current Munich Archbishop Reinhard Marx will be “certainly investigating these questions.”
Separately, the Regensburg Diocese said it will investigate allegations of physical and sexual abuse that have swirled around a renowned choir led by Benedict’s brother, the Rev. Georg Ratzinger. So far, the sex-abuse allegations predate the cleric’s term as choir director.
Vatican officials have been unable to hide their alarm about the possible implications for the papacy.
“There is certainly the suspicion that there are some out there out to damage the church and the pope,” said a Vatican official, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The Vatican has spoken up several times in recent days to defend the church as having acted “promptly and decisively” regarding the German abuse scandal.
Father Ratzinger, 86, said in a newspaper interview published Tuesday that he slapped pupils as punishment after he took over the Regensburger Domspatzen boys choir in the 1964. He also said he was aware of allegations of physical abuse at an elementary school linked to the choir but did nothing about it.
The slapping of students and other forms of corporal punishment were common in Catholic schools in Germany and other countries in that era. Such punishment was later banned.
The Regensburg Diocese has reported two cases of sexual abuse involving the choir, stemming from 1958 and 1959. And across Germany, more than 170 students have claimed they were sexually abused at several Catholic high schools.