The child abuse scandal rocking the Catholic Church widened yesterday as a leading German bishop personally appointed by Pope Benedict was accused of ritually beating and punching children at a church-run home during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Five former residents of the St Josef's home in Bavaria submitted written statements to Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper claiming the Bishop of Augsburg, Walter Mixa, a controversial conservative churchman appointed by the Pope in 2005, used to hit and degrade them during punishment sessions at the home.
Bishop Mixa's diocese yesterday rejected the allegations as "absurd, untrue and obviously invented in order to defame the bishop".
The allegations emerged as the Vatican prepares a legal defence it hopes will shield the Pope from a lawsuit in the US seeking to have him answer questions under oath related to an abuse scandal. Court documents obtained by the Associated Press show that Vatican lawyers plan to argue that the Pope has immunity as head of state and that American bishops who oversaw abusive priests were not employees of the Vatican. The Vatican is trying to fend off the first US case to reach the stage of determining whether victims have a claim against the Vatican for allegedly failing to alert police or the public about Roman Catholic priests who molested children.
In Germany, Hildegard Sedlmayr, 48, a former resident of the home in the Bavarian town of Schrobenhausen, where Bishop Mixa was a priest, told Süddeutsche Zeitung that at age 15, the bishop dragged her from her bed and punched her repeatedly on the arm.
"He grabbed me by the nightshirt, pulled me up out of my bed and punched me repeatedly on the upper arm. Afterwards it was covered in bruises," she said. "The two years at St Josef's were the worst in my life."
Another former St Josef's resident, named as Thomas Huber, said he was in pain for "several days" after Bishop Mixa flogged him. "I was made to bend over a bench, then Mixa hit me 35 times with a carpet beater," he said.
Three other former residents said Bishop Mixa habitually punished children with slaps to the face, punches to the arms, and beatings. The former residents claimed that Catholic nuns who ran the home also hit children with brooms and wooden shoes.
"The children whose parents never visited the home were the ones who were beaten most," said one former resident, named as Markus Tagwerk. "Over the years, Mixa pulled down my trousers and beat me hard on the behind on at least 50 separate occasions," he said.
A contemporary of the Pope, Bishop Mixa, 68, was a priest in Schrobenhausen until 1996, when he was appointed bishop of the Bavarian town of Eichstätt. In 2005, the pontiff personally appointed his colleague to the higher post of Bishop of Augsburg.
Bishop Mixa is renowned for being a member of the hardline conservative group of German Catholic Church leaders, to which the Pope belonged before his appointment to the Vatican.
The bishop attracted controversy earlier this year by claiming that the "so-called sexual revolution" was to blame for the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. Chancellor Angela Merkel criticised him for claiming that her attempt to improve childcare provision in Germany turned women into "birth machines".
Bishop Mixa is the second senior German Catholic figure linked to the Pope to face accusations. Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, the pontiff's brother, this month admitted hitting young choristers during his time as the director of Germany's renowned Regensburger Domspatzen boys' choir.