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Half A Million Austrian Catholics Urge Radical Reforms

July 5, 1995

VIENNA, Austria (AP) _ More than half a million people in this predominantly Roman Catholic country have petitioned for radical church reforms, including the right of priests to marry and the ordination of women, organizers said Wednesday.

The petition was organized after the Austrian church was shaken by one of its biggest scandals in decades _ published claims by several people that they had been sexually abused as minors by Cardinal Hans-Hermann Groer, the archbishop of Vienna.

Groer has never addressed the charges in public, though he stepped down as head of the national bishops’ conference. The charges nonetheless raised concerns about the church’s demand of celibacy for priests.

Referendum organizers said the more than 500,000 petition signatures far exceeded expectations. More than 6 million of Austria’s nearly 8 million residents are declared Roman Catholics, but church officials say only about 1.2 million are active churchgoers.

``It can no longer be that the people of the church continue to have no say,″ declared Thomas Plankensteiner, a theologian from Innsbruck and a leading member of the ``We are the Church″ campaign.

The petition, which was announced in the media, was not allowed to circulate in churches, but it was open for signature in a few parishes.

The petitioners’ five key demands were the right of the congregation to have a say in appointing bishops; admission of women to the priesthood; abolition of celibacy requirements for priests; freedom of conscience in sexual matters; and a lifting of the ban on communion for remarried divorcees.

The petition has deepened the rift between church conservatives and those who want to reform Austria’s troubled church.

While several bishops publicly said the unexpectedly large number of signatures means the petition must be taken seriously, Bishop Kurt Krenn, an outspoken conservative, dismissed it as meaningless. He also caused a public uproar when he likened it to the 1938 plebiscite in which Austrians voted to join Nazi Germany days after Adolf Hitler’s troops marched in.

``Every signature is one too many,″ Krenn said. ``Our people have already once erred with a very large majority.″

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