BERLIN Some 200 Germans brought up in children's care homes, many of whom were abused in Church-run institutions, marched through Berlin on Thursday, waving banners to draw attention to the plight of victims.
The rally coincided with talks between the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Germany, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, and Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger to patch up a public spat over the abuse scandal that has shaken the Church.
"We say: go public, make politicians wake up to the fact that we are here," said Dirk Friedrich, spokesman for "Ehemalige Heimkinder" (Former Care Home Children). The group is made up of children who spent time in a range of homes, including Church-run institutions.
Some protestors held banners with slogans such as "Open the Archives"; one woman had a placard saying "I had to eat vomit".
One protestor held a crucifix with dolls nailed to it. Alongside, a giant model of a nun clad in black wielded a crucifix in one hand and a large stick in the other.
The issue is particularly sensitive here because Pope Benedict, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, is German and was archbishop of Munich at a time when a priest in his archdiocese undergoing therapy for sexual abuse was returned to work.
The Vatican has denied he was involved in that decision. His brother Rev. Georg Ratzinger has also admitted to doling out corporal punishment.
The group of former care home children, which has demanded an apology and compensation, says it has long tried to get politicians to listen to accounts of abuse but until now they have done nothing.
"We have known about the scale of spiritual and physical injuries for decades and are surprised at the sudden hype over sexual abuse. We have been talking about it for years but no-one was interested," Friedrich said.
More than 250 German Catholics have reported alleged abuse cases, mostly at schools several decades ago, adding to scandals in countries from Ireland to the United States and Mexico.
FOLLOWERS DESERT CHURCH
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported the Catholic Church had lost an almost unprecedented number of people in southwestern Germany in March due to the abuse scandal.
The diocese of Freiburg lost 2,711 members, almost three times the number who left in March 2009, the newspaper said.
Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger had accused the Church of being uncooperative and showing scant interest in clearing up the cases. Zollitsch had demanded she withdraw her statements.
However, at Thursday's meeting, the two agreed to work together to tackle the problem.
"Both sides agreed it is the priority of the Catholic Church and of state authorities -- in close cooperation with each other and the victims -- to try to thoroughly clear up past cases of sexual child abuse in Church institutions," they said.
Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger welcomed steps taken by the Church, such as the creation of a telephone hotline for victims but insisted that internal Church procedures must not hinder investigations by state authorities.
The German Bishops' Conference will take part in a working group to resolve cases and aside from legal issues, a central question will be how to acknowledge the suffering of victims in cases affected by the statute of limitations, they said.
Next week, a round table of German ministers and prominent figures in the Church and secular institutions will take place to discuss how to tackle child sex abuse.
Although the focus has fallen on the Catholic Church, abuse has also come to light at Protestant and secular institutions.
(Additional reporting by Reuters Television; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)