BERLIN (Reuters) - The German government agreed on Wednesday to set up round table talks to tackle a wave of child sexual abuse cases, including numerous allegations of abuse in the Roman Catholic Church that have shocked the country.
The talks will also investigate alleged abuse cases in Protestant and secular schools and be led by four women -- three current government ministers and a former minister.
More than 250 abuse cases have been alleged in recent weeks, most of them at Catholic schools and dating from several decades ago. The scandals brought calls for an official inquiry into the Catholic Church, as Ireland had last year, but Berlin opted for round table talks among all groups concerned with the issue.
"This is an existential problem for the Church," Family Minister Kristina Schroeder told journalists while presenting the panel. "What's amazing is that, in all these cases, it was known that there was sexual abuse. There were rumours, whispers and jokes going around in the schools where it happened."
The talks, which open on April 23, will examine past cases and explore ways to prevent abuse and support victims. While they may expose criminal activity, most cases cannot be prosecuted because the statute of limitations has expired.
The Catholic and Protestant churches, child protection associations, counselling services and other social groups have been invited to the talks.
Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, Germany's top Catholic bishop, welcomed the talks and said: "The Catholic Church will do everything to bring about a complete resolution of sexual abuse cases that occurred in its own ranks in the past."
The talks will be jointly led by Schroeder, Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger and Education Minister Annette Schavan. Christine Bergmann, who was family minister from 1998-2002, will serve as ombudsman for victims.
Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger had angered the Catholic Church by accusing it of secrecy and calling for an inquiry focussed on its abuse cases. Catholic bishops refused to cooperate with that idea and insisted non-Catholic cases also be probed.
As the panel was presented, Stern magazine published a poll saying Germans' trust in the Catholic Church had fallen to 17 percent from 29 percent in late January. Approval ratings for Pope Benedict have dropped to 24 percent from 38 percent.
Round table talks have a special place in recent German history because civil rights groups held them in the dying days of the former East Germany to expose communist-era oppression. They work on consensus and have no way to prosecute crimes.
Barbara Blaine, head of the United States-based Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said she opposed round table talks, especially with church officials.
"Instead of the round table, it would be far better to investigate the crimes and have the truth be revealed, so that the children today can be protected," she said at a protest with others outside the Justice Ministry in Berlin. A German chapter of the U.S.-based SNAP was launched in Munich Monday.
Writing by Christopher Lawton, editing by Tom Heneghan and Noah Barkin