BONN, Germany (AP) _ Chastised by the Vatican and under fire from the government, Heidelberg University promised Wednesday to prove it got relatives' consent to use cadavers in car crash tests partly financed by Washington.

The university and an American official defended the research as vital in the effort to make cars safer for the living.

The revelation that the bodies of 200 adults and eight children were used in car safety research since 1975 created a public uproar in Germany, a country sensitive to medical experiments because of those carried out by the Nazis.

Klaus von Trotha, research minister of Baden-Wuerttemberg state, where the university is located, stopped short of ordering a halt to the tests. But he told Heidelberg to deliver a comprehensive report on how many tests were conducted and to prove relatives gave permission for use of the corpses.

''Our constitution guarantees freedom in scientific research. But the constitution also guarantees the protection of human dignity,'' Trotha said on German television. He said he had not known of the research before he read about it in a newspaper story Tuesday.

The university will comply with Trotha's order, but has no intention of suspending research using adult bodies, spokesman Michael Schwarz said. He said tests with children's corpses ended in 1989.

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

The Vatican found that alarming.

''A body cannot be used as a guinea pig for auto tests. What happened is repugnant to the conscience,'' said a commentary by L'Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper.

In Washington, George Parker, associate administrator for research at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said tests on corpses give important information on impact injuries that cannot be obtained other ways.

''We need that type of data to find out how people are injured in crashes, to know what areas of the body are injured under what conditions,'' he said.

The data is then used to set measuring devices on crash dummies that help test what happens when new car models crash. ''If you didn't do this testing, you wouldn't know what limits to put on dummies for crash tests,'' he said.

Parker said his agency finances some of Heidelberg's research as well as similar tests at the University of Virginia and the Medical College of Wisconsin, spending about $2.5 million a year on such work. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta supported crash tests at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Schwarz, the spokesman for Heidelberg University, said the research on crash injuries conducted by the school's forensic pathology institute has saved lives.

''This is a completely normal matter for the researchers involved, but apparently some people don't like thinking about life and death,'' Schwarz said. ''I suspect this sensitivity has something to do with Germany's past.''

He said the tests using eight children's bodies helped improve car-safety seats. Tests using adult bodies has led to better seatbelts, he said.

Relatives' consent has been obtained in every single case, Schwarz said.

Getting permission is not easy, he added. ''It's sometimes difficult to persuade someone that this is necessary for saving human lives,'' he said.

Germany's most-read newspaper, the tabloid Bild, splashed the car crash scandal on its front page for a second day Wednesday, complete 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.''

Kallieris did not return telephone calls to his office Wednesday.

In describing one test, Bild said the body of a male adult was buckled behind the steering wheel of an Opel Kadett. Sensors were attached to the head, chest and hips. Another Opel was rammed into the driver's side at 31 mph. The collision collapsed the corpse's lungs, broke many ribs and punctured the liver.