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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.

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But now, experts say that some tenets, in particular the idea of closeness between pupils and teachers, and the school's remote locale, could have led to sexual abuse. "There was a sort of sexual libertinage that was seen as inherent to a child's emancipation and presented to the children as ideal," says Micha Brumlik, an education specialist at Goethe University in Frankfurt.

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Now, there's a national discussion on what relationships between adults and children should look like, especially in boarding schools. "There must be a difference between schools being public places of teaching and the family being private," says Jürgen Oelkers, an education historian at the University of Zurich, in Switzerland. "The Odenwald school mixed up the two."

Mr. Brumlik cautions that alternative education shouldn't be abandoned. "Learning through social skills and aesthetical values is important," he says. "Children learn to articulate themselves by means of the arts and with their body, through sport."

More scrutiny

A good positive from the scandals, say experts, is more scrutiny of institutions with closed structures that may have encouraged a culture of silence. "In authoritative structures, children don't learn as much how to voice their fears," says Ms. Enders, who works with sexually abused children. "In liberal settings that do not have clear rules, people don't say anything, either. They consider things normal."

That there was abuse at Odenwald, as there was at some Catholic schools, isn't news. In 1998, the school's principal was formally accused of sexual abuse. He resigned and the charges were dropped. The school today admits its inquiry was inadequate.

"Now we are confronting the issue," says Enders, "and it's easier for boys and girls to talk about it."

"The taboos are gone," says Ms. Sliwka. "We can no longer idealistically believe that a teacher is always a good person."

In church and children's institutions, as well as in political circles, officials say they want to pursue child molesters more aggressively. Be­fore the Vatican issued guidelines in early April on how the church should respond to sex-abuse complaints involving priests, the Bavarian Catholic Church had said it would report all abuse cases to the police immediately.

Odenwald principal Margarita Kaufmann promised a "comprehensive and transparent investigation." She also pledged to improve teacher selection and training. The state of Hessen, home to Odenwald, wants to require schools to report all suspected cases of abuse and said it will launch an investigation of all 33 boarding schools in the state.

Creating a climate where children cannot be hurt in any child-oriented institution is where the discussion is focused. "We have to teach the children that they have to be able to say no," says Elkin Deligöz, a member of Parliament from the Green Party. "We have to end this culture of looking the other way."

"We're talking about what professionalism means in terms of closeness and distance: in which areas is distance good; in which areas closeness is good; how close is too close, how distant is too distant," says Sliwka in Heidelberg. "Every structure has to immunize itself. Each child should know where to go when abuse occurs. There has to be an ombudsman, a code of conduct, a set of structures."