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Sex abuse in Germany 'hidden for years'

Cleric's claim coincides with Pope's apology to Catholic worshippers

Ireland's Catholics listened to the Pope's apology for the conduct of the Church throughout a long-running paedophilia scandal at Mass yesterday. But any hope that the extraordinary gesture would draw a line under the abuse claims was dashed when a senior German cleric became the first to admit that the church in the Pope's native Germany had "hidden for years" assaults by priests on young children.

Robert Zollitsch, the archbishop of Freiburg, told a German newspaper that the "assaults that took place in such numbers within our institutions shame and frighten me". His remarks came even as senior Vatican figures claimed that Pope Benedict's pastoral letter on the Irish abuse cases was the last word on the scandal.

Archbishop Rino Fisichella, head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, writing in the Italian Bishops' Conference newspaper L'Avvenire, said yesterday that "with this letter, we have decisively turned the page; nothing left unsaid, no excuses".

Archbishop Zollitsch had already apologised for a 20-year-old cover-up of sexual abuse that took place when he was in charge of human resources in the diocese of Freiburg. And some critics claimed the Pontiff had not accepted that Vatican policies of keeping abuse secret were in large part to blame.

Also, German newspaper Der Spiegel claimed to have seen new documents confirming that, as Archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1980, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger knew of priest Peter Hullermann's paedophile tendencies when he was accepted into the diocese.

Pope Benedict, in his first public address since the publication of the pastoral letter, made no direct mention of the paedophile scandal as he addressed pilgrims in St Peter's Square yesterday. He made only oblique references, calling on the faithful to be "unforgiving of the sin, but merciful to the person". He then quoted "he who is without sin to cast the first stone".

In the pastoral letter the Irish faithful heard at Mass yesterday, the Pope said Irish bishops had made grave errors of judgment during the sex abuse scandal. One support group, Irish Survivors of Child Abuse, welcomed the overall tenor of the message. "It would appear the message overall is one of sincerity to bring about change in the church," a spokesman said.

Not all observers were so positive. "They still don't see this isn't just about individual cases, but about an overall structural problem," said Christian Weisner of the German lay movement We Are Church. "The letter does not amount to a big breakthrough."

Victims' organisations in other countries are also demanding direct apologies. Leonie Sheedy, president of Care Leavers Australia Network told an Australian newspaper: "I'd like the Pope to acknowledge what happened to us in the Catholic institutions in Australia."

Meanwhile, Martin Werlen, a leading priest from the Swiss Bishops Conference, said the Vatican should set up an international register of Roman Catholic clergy reported for sex abuse.