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Pope urged to apologise for Vatican castrations

Revelations that the Vatican encouraged the castration of choir boys in the name of art for hundreds of years have prompted calls for a papal apology.

Human rights groups, historians and Italian commentators said the Pope should ask forgiveness for his predecessors' role in the mutilation of castrati singers.

New research suggests that the employment of castrati was tolerated by the Vatican as late as 1959, long after other states had banned it as barbaric.

From the 16th century onwards generations of Italian boys were castrated in the hope that their voices, prevented from breaking, would combine a child's high register with the vocal power of a man. Their ability to sing beyond normal human limits enraptured opera-goers, emperors and popes, who commissioned a choir of castrati to perform in the Sistine chapel. An edict by St Paul prevented women singing in church.

Successful castrati such as Farinelli - the subject of Gérard Corbiau's 1994 film - became Europe-wide superstars, feted by composers such as Handel, but most failed to make the grade and were cast aside, devastated and useless even as circus freaks. According to Angels Against their Will, a new book by the German historian Hubert Ortkemper, the castrato Alessandro Moreschi performed in the Sistine chapel until 1913.

Officially the Vatican always condemned the practice, which is thought to have started around 1500, and punished castrators with excommunication. In 1902 it issued a decree banning castrati from the Sistine chapel. But such was the beauty and power of their singing that successive popes sponsored the phenomenon by employing them on the pretext that they were accidentally castrated, for example by falling from a horse or by an animal bite.

Italy's leading newspaper, Corriere della Sera, said the Pope, whose CD recordings have sold millions, should follow up his admission of church wrongs against Jews, Muslims and scientists by expressing sorrow for the castrati.