MUNICH, Germany (AFP) - More than 500 boys at a world-famous Catholic choir school in Germany suffered sexual or physical abuse in what victims have likened to "prison, hell or a concentration camp", said a report Tuesday (July 18) on one of the country's worst such scandals.
Many of the 547 victims remembered their time at the Regensburger Domspatzen ("Cathedral Sparrows") school as "the worst time of their lives, marked by fear, violence and helplessness", said lawyer Ulrich Weber, who was commissioned two years ago by the diocese to probe the cases.
The lead investigator criticised senior church figures for failing to do enough to prevent the abuses at the boarding school in the Bavarian town of Regensburg - among them former choirmaster Georg Ratzinger, 93, the elder brother of former pope Benedict XVI.
Weber also criticised foot-dragging in clearing up the scandal by Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, 69, the former bishop of Regensburg.
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The Vatican announced on July 1 that Mueller had been replaced by Pope Francis as the church's chief of doctrine. The pair had clashed over key reform issues and the Church's handling of the worldwide clerical sex abuse scandals.
The document presented on Tuesday was Weber's final report on abuses between 1945 and the early 1990s at the famed cathedral choir with a thousand-year history.
He said he had uncovered 67 cases of sexual abuse and 500 cases of other physical violence, with some former singers having fallen victim to both.
'CULTURE OF SILENCE'
This more than doubled the 231 reported abuse cases Weber had uncovered through interviews by January 2016, when he said victims had spoken of rape, sexual assaults, severe beatings and food deprivation.
Weber, who was not able to speak with all former students, said he estimated the true number of victims at around 700.
He said that 49 alleged perpetrators had been identified, almost all of them teachers and educators, but that they were not expected to face criminal charges as the alleged crimes took place too long ago.
The report blamed mainly a former pre-school director and his prefect, without naming them, for systematic violence that peaked in the 1960s and 70s but continued into the 90s and aimed "to break the will of the children".
The investigator pointed to a "culture of silence" that aimed to protect the reputation of the choir of boys and young men that has made many recordings and performed around the world.
Weber placed part of the blame for the situation on Georg Ratzinger, the head of the choir from 1964 to 1994, for "looking the other way and failing to intervene" on the physical violence.
Ratzinger has denied knowledge and said that sexual abuse was "never discussed" while he ran the choir.
Weber also charged that Cardinal Mueller, in his former post as bishop of Regensburg, had failed to sufficiently clear up the decades of abuse or engage in dialogue with the victims.
Mueller denied in comments to national news agency DPA that the church had been slow to clear up past abuses.
He said the diocese had studied past cases and urged victims to come forward, and that the abuse reports only emerged in 2010 about crimes committed decades before he assumed his post.
"Most of the perpetrators had died long ago," Mueller told DPA.
'ALL MADE MISTAKES'
The known victims are now expected to receive 20,000 euros ($23,000) each in compensation.
The diocese apologised in a statement and said that "we all made mistakes and we have learnt a lot".
Weber agreed that the diocese had rectified organisational weaknesses, and that there was a "heightened awareness" about the past abuses.
The abuse scandal is one of several to have rocked the Catholic Church in recent years, notably in Ireland where one priest admitted sexually abusing more than 100 children.
Several German institutions have also been engulfed by the scandal, including an elite Jesuit school in Berlin which admitted to systematic sexual abuse of pupils by two priests in the 1970s and 1980s.