By Steve Rosenberg
BBC News, Scharbeutz, Germany
Norbert Denef now campaigns to draw attention to abuse
Germany’s northern coast is still in the grip of winter.
In the seaside town of Scharbeutz, the almost deserted beach looks more like a glacier, with thick carpets of ice spreading out along the sea.
Norbert Denef loves the Ostsee, even in winter. He lives just a few minutes from the beach and often comes here for walks, or even for a morning dip in the icy waters.
“This place is like a therapy for me,” Mr Denef explains as we stroll along the shore.
He moved to Scharbeutz last year to begin a new life, away from the memories which have been haunting him since he was a child.
“When I was 10 years old, the local Catholic priest selected me to be an altar boy,” he says.
“I was very excited. After the service he took me up to his apartment. I felt so proud. Then he locked the door, sat down and undid my trousers. He performed a sexual act on me. At that very moment he murdered my soul.”
Shame and silence
For the next five years, Mr Denef was subjected to sexual abuse by the priest, a friend of his parents.
All my life there hasn’t been a day when I haven’t had a picture in my mind of what happened
Then, following an intervention by the church organist, the clergyman was transferred to a different diocese.
But Mr Denef’s ordeal was not over. The organist began abusing him and continued doing so for three more years.
“All my life there hasn’t been a day when I haven’t had a picture in my mind of what happened,” he says.
“Sometimes it’s just a noise or a smell which triggers the memory.”
For 35 years, Mr Denef suffered in shame and in silence. He told no-one what he had experienced.
He got married and had children. He could not bring himself to share his secret with them.
“Until the age of 40, I thought I was the only one who’d suffered this. I felt I was in a dark place, in solitary confinement.”
It is clear today that Mr Denef was not the only victim.
In recent weeks more and more Germans have been coming forward with their own stories of abuse.
Suddenly, the scale of physical and sexual in Germany’s Roman Catholic Church looks much larger.
Allegations have emerged at several Roman Catholic institutions in Germany
So far there have been more 170 allegations of sexual abuse relating to Catholic institutions in Germany.
They include Jesuit colleges and a Bavarian monastery where priests are alleged to have abused children as far back as the 1950s.
Another is the Regensburg boys choir school. Pope Benedict XVI’s brother, Georg Ratzinger, who led the choir for 30 years, has admitted slapping choirboys.
But he has denied any knowledge of sexual abuse during his time there.
Mr Denef finally decided to reveal his secret when he realised his own family was on the point of breaking apart.
“I went on one holiday with my wife and children and I didn’t speak to my kids at all for the three weeks we were there. I felt totally burned out. My wife told me to do something about it.”
He took a long time building up the courage to tell them.
“I spent a year in front of the mirror, practising trying to say the words ‘I was sexually abused.’ I tried to force those words from my lips.”
Going public with his ordeal led to fresh pain. Mr Denef says he was disowned by his brothers and sisters who wanted no more to do with him.
After he reported the two offenders to the church authorities, Norbert says he was eventually offered 25,000 euros (£22,650) in compensation – on condition that he never speak about the abuse.
The gag order incensed him and he refused to sign that clause.
“I vowed never to remain silent again,” he says.
For every 10 people you hear saying they were abused, you can be sure there are another thousand victims staying silent
He wrote to the Pope – at that time John Paul II – asking for help, and received a letter from Rome.
It contained no apology. Instead, a Vatican official wrote that the Pope would pray for him and encouraged him to return to the family of the Church.
The letter drove Mr Denef into a deep depression. He attempted suicide.
“I felt like a light was switching off inside me. I tried to drown myself. But suddenly I felt a great inner strength pushing me out of the water. I wanted to live again.”
Since then, he has campaigned to highlight the problem of abuse in the Catholic Church.
The 60-year-old has also lobbied the German parliament, to try to bring about a change in the law.
“Most important of all, the statute of limitations for sex crimes should be extended,” he says.
“At the moment you can’t prosecute many of the offenders, because they committed their crimes so long ago.
“This itself is a crime. It puts more pressure on victims to stay silent.”
Mr Denef expects the scale of the scandal to grow.
“What we hear now is only the tip of the iceberg,” he says.
“For every 10 people you hear saying they were abused, you can be sure there are another ten thousand victims staying silent.”