Pope Benedict XVI and the Catholic Church are facing acute embarrassment by repeated revelations of sexual abuse of children by homosexual priests whether in Ireland, Austria, Holland, the United States or Germany.

It has now been reported that members of the world famous Vienna Boys Choir, a Catholic-run institution, also suffered sexual abuse at the hands of their orchestra conductor. And, for the first time, the allegations have touched the Pope's brother as well as the Pontiff himself, albeit indirectly. Worse, the charges reveal that the Church, instead of punishing the guilty shielded and sheltered them, transferring abusive priests instead of excommunicating them or giving them up to the authorities.

The increasingly serious church sex-abuse scandals have been blamed on what many consider to be obsolete rules, such as absolute celibacy, applied to the Catholic clergy, rules that Pope Benedict XVI, known for his conservative views, continues to defend.

Most of the allegations date back to the 1950s and because of the statute of limitations, many of the guilty now cannot be prosecuted.

However, German Catholic church authorities have launched two investigations into charges of abuse by members of the clergy. One will try to establish how much the clergy's top echelon, including the Pope, who was then a Cardinal, knew about the abuse.

The second investigation will be conducted by the Catholic diocese of Regensburg in southern Germany and will explore allegations that boys were sexually and physically abused at Catholic schools around Germany. So far, more than 170 former students have accused clergy members of sexual or physical abuse. These cases include allegations of naked beatings, fondling, and sodomy.

When asked if Pope Benedict, who served as Bishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982, had any direct knowledge of the allegations of abuse, German Bishop's Conference spokesman Karl Juesten told the Associated Press: “We do not know if the Pope knew about the abuse cases at the time.”

The most recent scandals concern Germany and Austria. In Germany alone there have been some 200 reported cases of sexual abuse at more than 29 separate Catholic schools, colleges and other Church-run institutions. They include the famous Regensburger Domspatzen boy's choir which was run by Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, the Pope's brother, for 30 years until 1994. This week, Monsignor Ratzinger has admitted slapping choirboys, but said that was a normal way of keeping discipline. But he denied any knowledge of sexual abuse.

The Pope has now been personally implicated for the first time following disclosures that he unwittingly approved the transfer of a priest who forced oral sex upon an 11-year-old boy. As a result, the priest was transferred in 1980 from his parish in the German town of Essen to the Pope's former diocese in Munich. At the time, the Pope was a Cardinal and Munich came under his purview.

However, his former diocese on Saturday continued to maintain that the decision to allow the convicted paedophile priest to continue working had been taken by Gerhard Gruber (81), its principal vicar. “I deeply regret that the decision led to offences against youths,” said Monsignor Gruber. The priest was later convicted of abusing minors, fined and given an 18-month suspended prison sentence. He reportedly continues to work as a priest in Bavaria.

On Friday amid growing indignation and anger in Germany, German Bishops met the Pope. Monsignor Robert Zollitsch, Germany's most senior bishop, described the Holy Father's reactions: “With great shock, keen interest and deep sadness, the Holy Father took note of what I had to say. We want to bring the truth to light.”

The Pope on Saturday faced demands from German politicians that he should personally apologise to Church abuse victims. There is growing dissent in the top echelons of the Church. Several senior prelates in German-speaking countries suggested a link between abuse and the priest's vow of chastity and called for more open discussion in the Church about celibacy and priests' sexuality.

Many media commentators and some liberal Catholics, such as Swiss theologian Hans Kueng, have blamed the marriage ban for the recent scandals in Germany, Austria, Netherlands and Ireland and called for the rule from the 12th century to be scrapped.

“Times have changed, and society too, and the Church will have to consider how this type of life can be maintained or what it has to change,” Salzburg Archbishop Alois Kothgasser said on Austria's ORF television on Thursday evening. In a diocesan newsletter, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna said the Church had to ask difficult questions about the abuse scandals.

“That includes the issue of celibacy and the personal development” of priests, he wrote.

Although none of the prelates advocated putting an end to celibacy, the Pope has stubbornly refused to consider these views. At a theological conference at the Vatican just before his meeting with German Bishops, the Pope said celibacy was “the sign of full devotion, the entire commitment to the Lord and to the Lord's business, an expression of giving oneself to God and to others.”

(With inputs from agencies)

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