"We know that we failed," Archbishop Zollitsch, chairman of the German Ecumenical Conference, told its autumn meeting, adding that the problem of widespread molestation had been "recognised too late."
Sexual abuse is at the top of the agenda of the bishops' gathering following a series of scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church to its foundations in the homeland of Pope Benedict XVI.
Zollitsch said Church leaders were working to "plot the way forward" and prevent further cases of molestation by priests and other Catholic officials. He said payouts to victims were also being considered but declined to discuss how much was on the table. However he dismissed a demand by a prominent victims' group for €80,000 ($105,000) per person as unrealistic.
Zollitsch said most of those affected were not looking for financial "compensation." "They want to be heard," he said.
Like elsewhere in Europe, Germany was hit earlier this year by revelations that hundreds of children were physically or sexually abused in institutions throughout the country, all but a handful run by the Roman Catholic Church.
The Church in Germany has said it failed to investigate properly claims of abuse and that in some cases there was a cover-up, with paedophile priests simply moved elsewhere instead of being disciplined and reported to the police.
It has also faced accusations of foot-dragging on reparations for victims, most of whom suffered their abuse several decades ago.
German Jesuit leaders said Friday they were prepared to offer payouts without waiting for action by the Ecumenical Conference.
Late last month the Church in Germany unveiled tougher guidelines on investigating and preventing child sex abuse that it hopes will stop a repeat of the hugely damaging revelations of this year.
The pope on Sunday said at the end of a state visit to Britain that the scandals over paedophile priests had seriously weakened Church leaders' "moral credibility."