Berlin (AP) - 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 upcoming 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 St. Patrick's Day Mass, Ireland's highest ranking church member, Cardinal Sean Brady apologized to Irish Catholics. Brady has faced calls for his resignation 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 St. Patrick's Day 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 told parliament. "The damage suffered by the victims can never fully be repaired."
In the ensuing weeks, victims from the Bavarian Alps to the northern Rhineland have surfaced nearly every day with fresh allegations of abuse by priests and teachers, including at the school linked to the renown Regensburger Domspatzen boys choir led for three decades by the pope's brother the Rev. Georg Ratzinger. Claims have also 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."
A spokesman for Germany's Roman Catholic Church had said Wednesday before the pope's general audience that the pontiff could mention Germany later this week in conjunction with his expected letter to Irish Catholics over their own scandal.
"We certainly can not rule out that he will use this opportunity to address the situation in Germany, it is his homeland," Karl Juesten told the ARD broadcaster.
Last week the head of the German Bishops Conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, met privately with the pope. Zollitsch met in Berlin Wednesday to discuss the issue with members of parliament.
The chancellor's ministers for justice, family affairs and education have called for a round table that would include Catholic Church representatives, to meet in April and Zollitsch has said German church officials would participate. On the agenda would be 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, tasked with 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."
Meanwhile in Brazil, allegations that surfaced in the form of a video purportedly showing an 82-year-old priest having sex with an 19-year-old altar boy are rocking that heavily Catholic nation. Three priests have been suspended as part of the allegations and Bishop Valerio Breda said in a statement 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.
Associated Press Writers Kirsten Grieshaber, Nicole Winfield in Rome and Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin, Ireland contributed to this report.
Merkel: Sex abuse scandal major challenge