The operator of this website is the highly motivated community-minded Martin Mitchell from Australia (himself an instititionalised and abused minor in church institutions in the former West Germany)



Group Claims Rampant Abuse in Children's Homes

Abuse in German church-run children's homes was widespread, victims say.

Scene from "The Magdalene Sisters"

Nuns, priests and educators in German children's homes systematically abused the young people there, according to a recently-formed lobbying group. It's now demanding a public apology.

When Marion Zagermann looks back on her childhood, she doesn't remember carefree days playing with friends and being surrounded by loving adults.

Instead, often through tears, she remembers being chained to a bed at night, to a chair during the day, and being held under cold water until she lost consciousness. In short, she remembers abuse, even torture -- all at the hands of people of the church.

Now Marion and others are coming forth with their stories of abuse in church-sponsored children's homes across Germany. Their association, which hopes to be a forum and interest group for people who spent parts of their childhood in institutions, is meeting in the city of Kassel on Saturday.

The group's goals are to bring together people with similar abusive pasts in children's homes and set up a databank of their experiences. Members also want to bring the perpetrators, or at least the organizations where they were active, to account.

"We demand a public apology for the harm that was done to us in these institutions," Jean-Pierre de Picco, chairman of the victims' association, told reporters.

Tales of horror

According to him, there were around 3,600 children's homes in Germany in the 1950s and 60s, and while abuse did not take place in all of them, the horrific stories of mistreatment are not isolated cases. Of the cases of abuse reported thus far, 90 percent happened in Catholic children's homes.

"We were beaten and whipped bloody by the nuns, even for the smallest of infractions," Picco said.

Now an artist and historian for the city of Hamlin, Picco, 46, lived at the "Holy Hedwig Sisters" Catholic boarding school from 1963 to 1972, which has since been closed.

He describes nine years of fear due to continual physical and psychological abuse, including beatings with thorny branches, immersions in hot water until his skin was red and burnt, and sexual abuse. Fridays were especially bad for the young Picco, since fish, which he hated, was served in the cafeteria on that day. Usually he threw up on the tray and was forced to eat it all again.

For decades afterward he wasn't able to talk about his experiences and it was only in the mid-1990s that the repressed memories exploded on the surface. "I cried rivers," he said.

After the newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported his story some 500 people contacted the publication with similar stories. It was then that he decided to create a formal organization to represent children abused in homes from 1945 to1985. At the founding in January of this year in the largely Catholic city of Paderborn, it counted 70 members.

"What happened to us, must have happened to hundreds of thousands of others," he told reporters, the results often being addictive behavior, panic attacks, recurrent nightmares and depression as adults.

Taliban regime

Gisela N. was one of the thousands. At the age of 15 she was placed in a home in the city of Dortmund where she was kept virtual prisoner, unable to leave the house, for two years and spent much of the time in solitary confinement, once because she sang an Elvis song.

The 58-year-old compares the administration at the children's home as a Catholic "Taliban regime" and like most of the abuse kids, left the church long ago. She kept her story to herself for years and only came forward after seeing the 2003 film "The Magdalene Sisters," based on the real experiences of Irish girls sent to work in abusive conditions in laundries run by a religious order.

"It was a terror regime, a combination of Nazi ideology and fanatical Catholicism," she said.

While there were a few nuns, priests and teachers who were kind, they were quickly driven off by the abusers.

Picco says a public apology from the Catholic church would help victims work through the mistreatment. His association would also like a one-time compensation payment. So far, however, there Catholic church has kept silent about the accusations. For Marion Zagermann, that silence has to be broken and lessons have to be learned. Her coming forward is part of the first step.

"I never want to hear again people saying 'times back then were just like that'," she said.

DW staff (jam)
© 2004


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[ Date of first publication on this Website: 1 June 2004 ]


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