Catholic church pledges compensation for WWII forced laborers, but snubs national fund

BERLIN (AP) - Germany's Catholic church said Tuesday it would pay $4.6 million in compensation for using Nazi-provided forced labor during World War II but snubbed a national compensation fund, saying the church had no part in ''collective guilt.''

Pressure on the Catholic church has grown since German firms and the government established a $4.6 billion fund earlier this year and called on all organizations who might have used slave or forced labor, including the churches, to contribute.

While Protestant church leaders agreed last month to pay $4.6 million into the national fund, the Catholic church decided not to join that initiative and will instead channel payments to surviving victims via a charity, said Karl Lehmann, chairman of the German Catholic Bishops Conference.

He said the Catholic church rejected the idea of ''collective guilt'' for any abuses of forced laborers because it had treated its workers well, while the Nazis deliberately had worked slave laborers to death.

Many of those forced to work for Catholic institutions during the war were agricultural laborers not covered by the government-industry fund, which is aimed at helping forced laborers detained in concentration camps or employed in industry and government, the church argues.

''That doesn't mean we won't help shoulder the people's burden of responsibility,'' Lehmann said at a news conference in the western town of Mainz after 27 bishops met Monday to decide their policy.

Representatives of the government-backed fund and victims criticized the bishops for paying too little, too late and accused them of arrogance in deciding to shun the national initiative.

''It's an altogether small-hearted reaction to rid themselves of a painful subject,'' said Wolfgang Gibowski, the spokesman for the government-industry fund, complaining that the Catholic church had never approached the fund to discuss whether agricultural laborers would have been covered.

Otto Lambsdorff, the government's chief Nazi labor envoy, argued that it wasn't true that agricultural laborers wouldn't be entitled to payments under the national scheme. He said the fund would take into account payments by the Catholic church so that all victims would be treated fairly.

The foundation has been struggling to collect the firms' $2.3 billion share of the fund, with their pledges stuck for weeks at just over $1.4 billion.

Michael Witti, a Munich-based lawyer representing victims, said it had taken the church ''a laughably long time'' to decide to compensate survivors and accused it of ignoring popular support for the government-backed fund.

The Catholic church said half of its pledge will be direct payments via a charity organization to those forced to work in institutions such as monasteries and convents. The other half will go to educational projects run by the church.

While the Catholic church has yet to release details of how many forced laborers it employed, newspaper reports have suggested only a few hundred are still alive.

Also Tuesday, a Berlin historian confirmed that an archive containing the names and personal details of about 3,000 slave laborers, most from western Europe, was discovered in the bunker of a former electronics company in the capital. The data could help survivors claim compensation, Reiner Janick said.


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