PARIS (Reuters) - A messy dispute has broken out in Germany's Catholic Church after a bishop accused of abusing minors said his superiors had tricked Pope Benedict into retiring him and he might ask the Vatican to be reinstated.
Bishop Walter Mixa, who quit in April after admitting he had slapped children decades ago, said fellow bishops conspired to force him to tender his resignation and used a flimsy allegation of sexual abuse as a "trump card" to get Benedict to accept it.
The bishops concerned flatly denied the accusations and hinted that Mixa, 69, who had stayed briefly in a psychiatric clinic after leaving his post in the Bavarian city of Augsburg, needed more rest and possibly more treatment.
The dispute put an embarrassing spotlight back on the sexual abuse crisis that rocked the German Church earlier this year but had since slipped from the headlines. It also prompted comments from churchmen that one newspaper described as "not Christian."
"Bishop Mixa is acting really foolishly," Rev. Eberhard von Gemmingen, former head of Vatican Radio's German service, told ZDF television on Thursday.
"It's very stupid to play this up in public," he said, "He's lost touch with reality ... he's a sick man and it's silly to make so much noise about him."
Mixa said in an interview on Wednesday that two archbishops -- Robert Zollitsch and Reinhard Marx, heads of the German and Bavarian bishops conferences respectively -- had tricked Benedict into accepting his resignation by passing on unsubstantiated allegations that he had sexually abused minors.
"The rumor was baseless, as the (Augsburg) prosecutor's office confirmed after looking into it," he told the daily Die Welt. "They should not have cornered the pope like this."
In recent months, three Irish bishops have stepped down for mishandling sexual abuse cases and a Belgian bishop quit after admitting he had sexually abused boys.
Mixa was the first German bishop to resign, but he did so over allegations of physical abuse and misuse of Church funds. The sexual abuse rumor only surfaced after his resignation.
He was a controversial prelate so deaf to the mounting criticism of him inside the Church that Zollitsch and Marx issued a rare public call for him to quit before he agreed.
A spokesman for Marx, archbishop of Munich, denied there had been any conspiracy at work and damned Mixa with faint praise.
"We hope that retired Bishop Mixa continues his recovery. His stay in the psychiatric clinic was an important first step in that direction," Bernhard Keller told Munich Church Radio.
The Church did not want to reveal any more details about his case "in order to protect the retired bishop," he added.
In Augsburg, the auxiliary bishop now running the diocese denied Mixa's charge that he and two colleagues had leaked the sexual abuse rumor as part of the conspiracy against him.
In his interview, Mixa, who is due to visit Rome next month and meet the German-born pope, said he was considering appealing to a Vatican court to declare his resignation null and void.
He seemed to take a first step in that direction last week by moving back into the bishop' residence in Augsburg that he left after retiring. Church officials said his stay there was temporary until he could find other lodgings.
Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi told journalists that "one cannot expect the pope's decision will be changed."
German newspapers said the dispute cast the embattled Church in a poor light. "It looks bad for an institution when scandal becomes the only form of communication in which internal conflicts are discussed," Die Welt wrote.
Editing by Myra MacDonald