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Little progress on tackling German child abuse

Promises of support for victims of childhood sexual abuse have been largely left unfulfilled by German politicians. Even financial help and a victims' rights law prove more difficult to enact than had been expected.

More than three years ago Germany was rocked by a wave of sexual abuse cases - past and present - uncovered in schools and church institutions across the country. At the time, the government acted quickly and decisively in its efforts to tackle the issue. Social Democratic Party politician Christine Bergmann was put in charge of looking into the scandal independent of any of the sides involved.

Bergmann focused on grasping the massive scope of the abuse. A call that went out to abuse victims to report their cases proved a sad success story: many of the incidents took place decades ago and thousands of victims broke their silence.

Bergmann managed to break the taboo of the subject and at the time she said that she almost broke under the weight of some the stories she was confronted with. Her job ended after 19 months in October 2011 and she was succeeded by her former chief of staff Johannes Wilhelm Rörig.

Ministers Schröder and Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger (photo: Hannibal/dpa)

Ministers Schröder and Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger presented the results to the press in Berlin

Parallel to that special office, a round table was established to bring together victims' rights groups and representatives of the Protestant and Catholic churches. The fact that three federal ministers were part of the round table was intended to show just how important Berlin took the matter of sexual abuse of children.

The ministers for youth and family; for education; and for justice were all present and the round table wrapped up its work in November 2011 with a concluding report and the promise to implement concrete political measures. After one year, they were supposed to take stock of what had been achieved.

No political breakthrough

After a three-month delay, the evaluation has taken place but there has been little to show for the promises made to victims. The main issue of contention currently is how to finance a fund to pay for victims' therapy. At the round table it was agreed that this fund should have 100 million euros ($133 million) and that one half should be given by the government, while the other was to be contributed by Germany's states.

"I would have liked to be able to tell you that the funding was available," Family Minster Kristina Schröder on Wednesday (20.2.2013) told reporters in Berlin, adding that the states are blocking contributions to the project - so far Bavaria is the only one of the country's 16 states that has contributed.

The government in Berlin, however, said it was prepared to pay its 50 percent share and should the states keep blocking their contributions, Schröder said the government would consider setting up the fund with only federal and Bavarian money.

Asked as to why this hasn't happened yet, Schröder pointed out that the states had initially committed to paying. Many of the abuse cases took places in institutions that fall under the states' area of responsibility.

Parliamentary floor leader of Germany's Green party, Renate Künast, said the fund was not shaping up because "in many areas there's no clear concept."

Plastic doll on a park bench (photo: HELMUT FOHRINGER -/ AP)

Despite the efforts, abuse numbers didn't decline

Improving the legal situation of the victims has also not come into effect as planned. There is a draft law to protect the victims, but it is still being discussed by various committees for the past 20 months. A paragraph in the bill would extend the statute of limitations to 30 years.

"I am confident that the bill will be passed in the next weeks," Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger told reporters. Currently, there are also plans for the statute of limitations to only begin once the victim turns 22.

The ministers were optimistic that both measures - the therapy fund and victims' rights law - would still be passed during the current legislative term.

Thorough, but also effective?

Despite the fact that so far there's not been any major political breakthrough, there have been many efforts to deal with the issue of child abuse. Especially Family Minister Kristina Schröder has started initiatives for help, research and prevention of child abuse: in March she opened a theater project aimed at helping kids understand what's right and what's wrong.

In early 2012, a new child protection law that focuses on prevention and intervention went into effect. The Justice Ministry has issued new guidelines for prosecutors and judges. But guidelines are not actual laws and have much less of a binding effect. The Education Ministry has also supported research studies and projects to investigate the issue.

It's hardly surprise that many victims groups are unhappy about the job the government's done so far. Much energy has been put into initiatives aimed at the large general target group. How successful these efforts have been, remains to be seen.

Annually, about 14,000 abuse cases are registered by the police. But the estimated number of actual cases is much higher. Despite the measures from Berlin, the number of abuse cases in 2011 was the same as the average of past years.

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