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Germany Expresses Regret Over Failure to Stop Child Abuse at Nazi Nurse's Commune

MAINZ, Germany — Germany's foreign ministry acknowledged Tuesday that its diplomats "looked away" and failed to prevent child abuse at a commune founded by a Nazi pedophile in Chile.

Paul Schaefer — a Nazi nurse who became a preacher — set up the secretive Colonia Dignidad commune in Chile after fleeing Germany for South America in 1961.

Image: Paul Schaefer after being arrested in Buenos Aires, Argentina
Schaefer after being arrested in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in March 2005. ROLANDO ANDRADE / AP

He died in a Chilean prison in 2010 at the age of 89 while serving a 20-year sentence for child abuse, arms possession and human-rights violations.

Children who lived at the Colonia Dignidad commune testified at trials of colony leaders about being sexually abused, enslaved and separated from their parents.

On Tuesday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier publicly expressed regret over any role his ministry had in the decades-long scandal.

"Over the course of many years, from the 60s to the 80s, German diplomats at best looked away," Steinmeier said.

Image: Tobias Muller, who fled the controversial Dignity Colony in southern Chile, appears as he is taken under police protection
Tobias Muller, who fled the controversial Dignity Colony in southern Chile, appears as he is taken under police protection to testify in trial against the leader of the enclave in July 1997. AP

He said it was "no glorious chapter" for Germany's embassy in Chile, adding that envoys "clearly did too little for the protection of their fellow citizens in this colony."

At its height in the 70s and 80s, Colonia Dignidad had some 300 Chilean and German residents. Most worked as farmers at the commune, which was guarded by barbed wire and watchtowers.

Women had to wear braided pigtails and colorful dirndls — a traditional German outfit — while men often were seen in lederhosen, the male equivalent.

The German parliament in 2008 released funds for projects supporting former commune members' reintegration into society.

In a further attempt to come to terms with the troubling cases, Germany is now declassifying files dating from 1986 to 1996 to use for research. The move is also aimed at educating young diplomats about handling sensitive cases.

Colonia Dignidad today has been rebranded Villa Baviera, or "Bavarian Village," and its current residents want to put the commune's chilling history behind them.

They have opened up their German-style enclave to tourists, leaving many former victims appalled.

"It is something of a tourism center with aspects of the 60s, where a strange mix of Chilean famers, German migrants, victims and culprits, exist," former Colonia Dignidad resident and victim Winfried Hempel told German's Deutschlandfunk radio. "This is as if you had put a McDonald's into [former concentration camp] Buchenwald."