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Merkel: Sex Abuse Scandal Major Challenge to Germany and Church

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BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel called the sex abuse scandal rocking the homeland of Pope Benedict XVI a major challenge to German society and warned the only way to come to terms with it was to "find out everything that has happened."

Merkel's comments to parliament on Wednesday came amid growing impatience from Germany's Roman Catholics for the pontiff to address the scandal in his homeland, where some 300 former Catholic students have come forward with claims of physical or sexual abuse.

During his weekly general audience in Rome, Benedict said he hopes his forthcoming letter to the Irish faithful concerning the sex scandal in the Irish church would help with "repentance, healing and renewal" there, but failed to make any mention of the issue in Germany.

Speaking in English, Benedict acknowledged the Irish church had been "severely shaken" as a result of the crisis, and said he was "deeply concerned."

While the German scandal is particularly sensitive because it has landed the sexual abuse allegations on the doorstep of a sitting pope, in scope and numbers the Irish crisis is much greater.

There, three government-ordered investigations have documented a shocking catalog of child abuse and church cover-ups from the 1930s to 1990s involving more than 15,000 children.

At a St. Patrick's Day Mass, Ireland's highest ranking church member, Cardinal Sean Brady, apologized to Irish Catholics. Brady has faced calls to resign following revelations that he failed to report to police allegations of abuse by two victims of the notorious pedophile priest Brendan Smyth in 1975.

"I have listened to reaction from people to my role in events 35 years ago. I want to say to anyone who has been hurt by any failure on my part that I apologize to you with all my heart," Brady said in a sermon at Armagh cathedral in Northern Ireland.

Merkel stressed in her remarks – her first public statement on the German scandal – that it was important not to point fingers, although the Catholic Church has been at the heart of the German scandal, sparked in January when victims at a church-run Berlin high school went public.

"I think that we all agree that sexual abuse of minors is a despicable crime and the only way for our society to come to terms with it is to look for the truth and find out everything that has happened," Merkel said. "The damage suffered by the victims can never fully be repaired."

In recent weeks, victims from the Bavarian Alps to the northern Rhineland have surfaced nearly daily with fresh allegations of abuse by priests and teachers, including at the school linked to the renowned Regensburger Domspatzen boys choir led for three decades by the pope's brother, the Rev. Georg Ratzinger. Claims also have come from former students of some of Germany's top boarding schools.

"Let's not oversimplify things," Merkel said. "We need to speak about the statute of limitations, we can address the idea of compensation, but the main issue is that this is a major challenge for our society."

Research into one allegation of abuse at the Domspatzen school in 1971-72 led the Bishop of Eichstaett on Wednesday to suspend a priest identified only as Sturmius W. from his parish duties, the Regensburg diocese said.

Last week the head of the German Bishops Conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, met privately with the pope.

In an article for Thursday's edition of the daily Die Welt, Zollitsch defended the pontiff's handling of the scandal.

"Often enough, people don't want to listen to him, and now he is being widely accused of being silent" on the scandal in Germany, the archbishop wrote.

He said he knew from speaking with Benedict how deeply he was shaken by priests' abuse of children and recalled that, on a trip to the U.S. in 2008, the pope urged all to do everything to facilitate healing and reconciliation and to stand by the victims.

"What is the pope supposed to say that is new?" Zollitsch added. "His words have validity – and consequences."

Zollitsch has offered an apology to abuse victims. Bishops from Benedict's native Bavaria at an annual meeting Wednesday prayed "in the name of the church" for forgiveness, as well as God's support for the victims, the Munich archdiocese said.

Each bishop then symbolically lit a candle for his diocese.

Merkel's government has initiated a round table on abuse, including Catholic Church representatives, that is to hold its first meeting in April.

The agenda would include an examination of whether to extend the statute of limitations. Currently a victim must contact investigators within 10 years of their 18th birthday to trigger criminal proceedings; to claim damages in civil proceedings a victim typically has only three years.

Stephan Ackermann, the bishop of Trier who is handling allegations of abuse in the church, told the Rhein-Zeitung in its Wednesday edition the bishops wanted to move swiftly on resolving the issue.

"This year we will clear up (the issues of) guidelines and compensation," Ackermann said, adding that financial support would only account for part of the compensation for victims, stressing the importance of "recognition of what they suffered."

Abuse cases have surfaced well beyond Germany and Ireland.

In Switzerland, the Chur diocese said Wednesday that a priest has resigned after admitting to sexually abusing children in the 1970s and reported himself to local police.

In Brazil, allegations surfaced in the form of a video purportedly showing an 82-year-old priest having sex with an 19-year-old altar boy. Three priests have been suspended as part of the allegations and Bishop Valerio Breda said the church was cooperating with police.

"We reproach, without restriction and with hearts broken by shame and sadness, the facts in the report which, despite their not having been proven, have outraged human and Christian conscience," Breda said.

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Associated Press Writers Kirsten Grieshaber, Nicole Winfield in Rome and Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin, Ireland contributed to this report.