Germany faces up to sexual abuse after scandals at Catholic, other schools
Allegations of sexual abuse at schools run by the Catholic and Lutheran churches, as well as at an elite secular boarding school, have put child protection at the top of the domestic agenda in Germany.
At first, Germans were stunned by revelations about elite Jesuit boarding schools, where hundreds of former pupils say they suffered sexual abuse in the 1970s and '80s. Then attention turned to the Lutheran Church, which apologized for widespread abuse after World War II in its children's institutions. And last month, a similar pattern of abuse, and a coverup, rocked one of the country's most prestigious progressive boarding schools.Skip to next paragraph
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The experience in Germany is a reminder that the criticism swirling around the Catholic church and Pope Benedict XVI -- that they failed to do enough to protect children in their care -- is not an exclusively Catholic problem. Pope Benedict, celebrating his fifth anniversary as Pope today, referred to the church as a "wounded sinner" that feels "all the more the consolation of God," according to L'Osservatore Roman, a Vatican newspaper.
In Germany, what were first played down as isolated incidents have multiplied, prompting national soul-searching over the treatment of children in formerly trusted institutions – religious and secular, public and private – and spurring calls for reform.
"Most schools in the country are deeply shaken," says Ursula Enders, founder of Zartbitter in Cologne, Germany's biggest counseling center for young victims of sexual abuse. "Because of what's happened... they have recognized the relevance of the issue, and they are ready to institute change."
Schools, church choirs, and sports and scouts' clubs have all started reforming to better protect children. And Chancellor Angela Merkel has made confronting trauma and inappropriate adult-children relationships a priority: On April 23 government ministers are scheduled to meet with educators and children's advocates to talk about compensation, criminal prosecution, and prevention.
The Rev. Ansgar Thim, who handles abuse cases for the Roman Catholic diocese of Hamburg, says he was "overwhelmed" by the extent of revelations about Jesuit priests molesting children and adolescents – first in Berlin, and later at the St. Ansgar School in Hamburg, the St. Blasien College in the Black Forest, and in several parishes in Lower Saxony. "We're not prepared," he says. "But there is movement now."
At the same time, some 100 former pupils of Odenwald, a secular, progressive elite school, said sexual abuse there had been rampant.
Like Jesuit schools, the Odenwald School has long educated a German elite seeking an alternative to public education. But while the Jesuits focused on discipline, Odenwald thrived in the anti-authoritarian context of the late 1960s.
Born out of a philosophy of teaching children according to their individual desires and needs, it is located at the foot of rolling hills near Frankfurt.
Uprooting children from what it sees as the negative impact of urban life is part of the approach, says Anne Sliwka, head of research at Heidelberg University's School of Education. In addition to traditional classes like math and German, pupils can take gardening and carpentry; they learn by living in small groups headed by their teacher, the "family head."