Germany has owned up to one of the most disturbing examples of mass child and youth abuse in its post-war history, some 60 years after the first teenagers started being locked away and mistreated by supposedly "caring" foster homes.
The country agreed yesterday to provide a €120m (£101m) compensation fund for the estimated 30,000 victims who were among the 800,000 children in German foster homes in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies.
Institutions that for decades meted out inhuman treatment – including ritual beatings, periods of solitary confinement, forced labour and sexual assaults – were not youth remand centres or borstals as might be expected, but homes run by nuns and priests in former West Germany's Catholic and Protestant churches, as well as state-run homes.
Antje Vollmer, a Green Party politician and former German parliamentary president, announced the establishment of the fund yesterday after two years of round-table discussions with victims, politicians and church leaders in an attempt to provide some form of retrospective justice for those who were abused.
Ms Vollmer said that by setting up the fund, Germany was finally "recognising the suffering of the victims", which had been perpetrated by a nation which – at the time – had an "immature justice system" and was still trying to shake off attitudes inherited from a totalitarian Nazi regime.
Der Spiegel magazine, which broke the story of widespread abuse in German foster homes in 2003, concluded that the mistreatment was systematic: "Between 1945 and 1970, the worst educational practices of the Nazi era continued virtually unabated in these barrack like foster homes."
Those Nazi-era practices included beatings for petty offences like using too much soap or "nose picking" and incarceration in solitary confinement cells for "daring to hum" pop songs.
One victim, who refused to be named, recalled in a radio interview this week that a standard foster home punishment for talking at night was being made to stand naked in an unheated corridor until a freshly lit new candle had burned itself out. "It meant standing naked all night," he said.
Forced unpaid labour included ditch digging, turf cutting and being sub-contracted out to construction firms to hump bricks. For adolescent girls, the favourite form of unpaid labour was carried out in laundries, where they had to work for hours washing by hand and ironing.
Eleonore Fleth, now in her sixties, was sent to a church-run foster home as a teenager. Interviewed yesterday, she said she had been so traumatised by the experience that she had mentally blanked out much of her home experience. "I only know from my home records that I was contracted out and used as a part-time labourer for a building firm," she said.
"I still suffer bad attacks of claustrophobia from being locked up in solitary confinement. The worst thing was being so powerless."
In thousands of cases, teenagers were dispatched for long periods of incarceration in foster homes for committing offences that nowadays would be passed off simply as part of growing up. One woman victim, now in her mid-sixties, was shut away in a Catholic -run home at the age of 15.
Her crime was that she spent the night with her boyfriend and had failed to return home. Her mother convinced the local youth authorities and the courts that she was a danger to herself and society.
Shame and fear of further discrimination meant that the former inmates of Germany's foster homes of the Fifties and Sixties remained silent about the abuse they suffered for decades. When they approached their former homes, they were stonewalled and told to go away.
However, a handful were encouraged to come forward and tell their stories in 2002 after the release of British director Peter Mullan's acclaimed film The Magdelene Sisters, which exposed the plight of supposedly "fallen" girls held in Catholic-run foster homes in Ireland in the 1960s.
Peter Wensiersky, a journalist writing for Der Spiegel, started publishing their stories of abuse in 2003. "I didn't realise it at the time, but it was just the tip of an iceberg," he said.
Thousands more came forward and forced the German government to take notice. Yesterday's compensation deal follows profuse apologies from Germany's Catholic and Protestant churches for their role in the running of foster homes in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, the head of the German Catholic church, said he bitterly regretted the injustice. "With all my heart I beg those affected for forgiveness for these sad events," he said.
However, the sense of injustice felt by foster home victims remained intense more than half a century later. Yesterday one of the main foster home victims' groups, the Association of Former Home Children, condemned the fund as being utterly inadequate. The association's chairman, Monika Tschapek-Günter, herself a victim, described its provisions under which victims would obtain around €2,500 each, as a "humiliation". She said her group would challenge the fund's provisions in the courts.
Gisela Nurthen: 'We were juvenile slave labourers'
Gisela remembers being locked up in solitary confinement at the age of 15 for having the audacity to hum an Elvis Presley song. For two years she worked for 10 hours a day folding sheets and ironing. There was no pay.
"We were juvenile slave labourers," Mrs Nurthen, now in her mid-60s, said. "We were given numbers and only allowed to move about in pairs, to church, to the lavatory and to meals," she said.
Mrs Nurthen spent two years in a Catholic Church-run foster home in Dortmund during the 1960s. "The people who ran these homes, the religious orders, Germany's juvenile justice authorities and the churches – they all owe us an explanation," she said.
She was sent to the home run by the Charitable Sisters of the order of St Vincent de Paul. Her crime was that she had failed to return home after a night out dancing with her boyfriend.
She was picked up by the police the following morning trying to hitch hike back to her single parent mother. Her mother informed the local authorities and 24 hours later a juvenile court dispatched her to the home after ruling that she was "in danger of committing further acts of depravity".
She remembers being taken into a room by a nun and ordered to put on one of the institution's grey uniform dresses. The slightest transgressions brought beatings and other punishments from the nuns. "We were watched over every minute of the day. When we undressed for the night the nuns stared at our private parts and checked that they were 'washed clean'," she said.
Seven years ago, Mrs Nurthen and some 30 other former home inmates tried to obtain church documents relating to their time spent in the institutions, in order to expose the scandal and obtain some form of financial compensation.
She was told by the civil authorities that all documents relating to her case had been lost or destroyed. She contacted the Paderborn headquarters of the Charitable Sisters order that ran the home where she was held. She was told: "We have no documents. Our old sisters who were in the homes want to be left in peace. We don't want to get them involved in discussions of this nature."
P ublication of Gisela Nurthen's story led the German parliament to set up a review which yesterday agreed to give compensation for foster-home victims.
Abuses of trust
Magdalene laundries, Ireland
Rights groups continue to fight for women who stayed at workhouses for "fallen women" dubbed "Magdalene laundries" that operated for more than 100 years until 1996. Nuns who ran them were accused of systematic abuse.
Boston diocese sex abuse scandal
The conviction of Catholic priests in Boston for child abuse triggered a crisis in the Catholic Church in the US and led to a series of payouts to their victims.
North Wales care homes
Some 200 youngsters were abused in children's homes in the 1970s and 1980s in North Wales. The Waterhouse Report, ordered in 1996 by William Hague to look into the scandal, spoke of systematic abuse and a culture of secrecy and violence at homes in Clwyd and Gwynedd. The abuse came to light when the head of one of the homes came forward with her concerns.
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