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The head of Germany's Catholic bishops today denounced what he called appalling crimes of sexual abuse and the great injustice done to victims. In his Good Friday address, Bishop Robert Zollitsch called on the church to confront its past failures in handling abuse cases.
But the statement is not likely to assuage victims groups. They're pressing for action from independent investigators and the German government. Their argument: The church simply is not capable of investigating itself.
NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Berlin.
ERIC WESTERVELT: This week, the German Catholic Church launched a nationwide hotline for abuse victims. The first day alone, it was flooded with nearly 4,500 calls.
Norbert Denef, who says as a child he was drugged and raped by his parish priest, is co-founder of Network B, a new support group for German victims of sexual abuse. Denef calls the hotline absurd. How can victims, he asked, possibly get any help from those responsible for the abuse?
Mr. NORBERT DENEF (Co-Founder, Network B): (Through translator) If the Mafia were given the opportunity to investigate its own crimes, everyone would think that's crazy. This is similar.
WESTERVELT: Many victims here still feel overlooked, not only by the church but also by the German government. Network B is asking the government to exclude the Catholic Church from the state-organized roundtable discussions on abuse, due to start in late April. And they're asking lawmakers here to enact legislation to give victims more time to file charges. Now in Germany, in most cases, victims have just 10 years.
Mr. DENEF: (Through translator) We won't be walked all over anymore. We are speaking up aggressively. The issue is one of violence, not of sexuality. I've lodged a complaint with the German parliament demanding that the statute of limitations in civil law be abolished for sexual abuse cases. It's about the victims. We hope our suffering and damage is finally acknowledged.
WESTERVELT: Denef and Network B are adamant that the Catholic Church is not a credible partner in the effort to get justice for victims, or investigate itself. But others are more optimistic.
Michael Kreuzfelder of the German Catholic Youth Association says the church must be involved. He says the church can start with a more honest and open discussion about sex and sexuality.
Mr. MICHAEL KREUZFELDER (German Catholic Youth Association): To say it's okay if you talk about sex, and it's okay if you ask questions about this, and it's okay if we discuss this in church, this provides an atmosphere, a culture of talking about sexuality that perhaps leads to an openness. We need more transparency. We need to know more communication about that.
WESTERVELT: Germans continue to ask questions about the role of Pope Benedict, when he was archbishop in Munich, in the case of a priest who molested boys and was quickly returned to pastoral work after a short period of therapy.
In his Good Friday statement today, German Archbishop Robert Zollitsch did not mention any specific cases. But he said priests too often focused not on abuse victims but on, quote, a wrongly intended desire to protect the church's reputation. He urged the church to confront its painful record of covering up sexual and physical abuse that he said leaves the church with sadness, horror and shame.
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WESTERVELT: At the Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Berlin's Charlottenburg District, attendance has been up a little this Holy Week. But some parishioners here say they feel under siege.
Conchita Ungay says the pope and the Vatican are being unfairly targeted by the media.
Ms. CONCHITA UNGAY: It looks like now the Catholic Church is the worst thing in the world, and there is like a campaign against the church. This is my opinion. I feel like that. In the newspapers, it's every day, even a bigger and bigger title. And this I don't believe that is necessary. I think they are exaggerated.
WESTERVELT: Head Bishop Zollitsch's statement today may start to bridge the divide between abuse victims and the church here. And it could signal a softening of the defensiveness shown by some members of the German clergy.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Berlin.