Heidelberg University is being ordered to prove it received relatives' permission to use more than 200 human corpses - including those of eight children - in automobile crash tests.

The tests, reported Tuesday in the national newspaper Bild and by television networks, drew condemnation and outrage."Even the dead possess human dignity. This research should be done with manikins," said Rudolph Hammerschmidt, spokesman for the Roman Catholic German Bishops' Conference.

Germany's largest automobile club, ADAC, also was critical.

"In an age when experiments on animals are being put into question, such tests must be carried out on dummies and not on children's cadavers," the club said in a statement.

The Research Ministry of Baden-Wuerttemberg state, where Heidelberg University is located, ordered the school to disclose how many tests have been conducted and to show proof researchers first received relatives' consent.

"We have demanded a written report from the university," said Heike Stroele-Buehler, the ministry's spokeswoman. "We need to find out what the facts are."

German law permits the use of cadavers for research as long as relatives' permission is obtained.

In the tests, the bodies are strapped into cars that are smashed into other cars, walls and various barriers to measure the impact on humans, with the help of cameras and electronic sensors.

The corpses undergo autopsies before being used in the tests, and are then given back to their families for burial.

Bild splashed the story across its front page again Wednesday with a photograph of the main researcher: Dimitrios Kallieris.

A big headline next to Kallieris' photo read: "Professor Horror. He Did Car Tests Using Dead Children."

Dr. Rainer Mattern, head of Heidelberg University's forensic pathology department, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press that the tests with children's bodies ended in 1989, but said the university is continuing tests with adult cadavers.

He said that all the corpses were used with the permission of family members and that the parents of the dead children "`were clearly aware of what tests were being carried out with the corpses.

"The tests have saved lives of other children," Mattern said.

Bild gave a vivid description of the research:

In one test, the body of a male adult was buckled behind the steering wheel of an Opel Kadett. Special sensors were attached to the cadaver's head, chest and hips.

Another Opel, set in motion by remote control, rammed the driver's side of the first Opel at a speed of 31 mph, Bild said.

According to Bild, the collision collapsed the corpse's lungs, broke many ribs and punctured the liver.

Clarence Ditlow, head of the Center for Auto Saftey, a Washington-based public advocacy group, said crash tests using human bodies had been conducted by at least two research team in the United States in the 1980s.

The tests were done at Detroit's Wayne State University and at the Calspan research company's facility in Buffalo, N.Y.

"The best that one can say about this testing is that it's controversial," he said.

Comment on this story

He said his organization believes three criteria for such testing are necessary: prior consent by the deceased person, informed consent of the family and assurance the tests are seeking data that cannot be reliably obtained from crash dummies.

Robert Wartner, a spokesman for Wayne State University, said the school's Bioengineering Center conducted crash tests with cadavers under a program undertaken as part of a study by the federal government's Centers for Disease Control.

"Cadavers are used only when alternatives could not produce useful safety research," he said in a statement.

Officials of Calspan could not immediately be reached for comment.