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Austrians’ Catholics in Turmoil

January 23, 1998

VIENNA, Austria (AP) _ A former bishop embroiled in sex scandals. A letter criticizing the pope. Angry church-goers demanding reform.

Faced with a series of scandals in Austria’s Catholic Church, bishops and priests meet in Vienna on Sunday to analyze the turmoil and search for solutions.

For weeks, the church has been in the headlines almost daily. First, a letter by retiring Bishop Reinhold Stecher harshly criticized the Vatican as rigid and outdated, decrying its adherence to priestly celibacy and its prohibition against women priests. Then came accusations that former Vienna Archbishop Hans Herman Groer sexually abused boys.

The issues have injured the image of a church that many Austrians criticize as out of touch with modern times, and have exposed an apparent identity crisis within the institution.

``The public has the impression that the Church has stagnated,″ said Christian Friesl, the leader of Austria’s Catholic Action organization. Friesl will moderate Sunday’s meeting, a gathering of 15 bishops and priests from across the country.

Although most Austrians are registered Catholics, only about one-quarter attend Mass. Some Catholics blame declining participation on the number of conservative bishops appointed by Rome over the past decade.

``There is no progressive bishop in Austria at this time,″ said Adolf Holl, a professor of theology at the University of Vienna.

Others blame it on the church’s eagerness to hide problems instead of confronting them.

In 1995, Archbishop Groer was accused of sexually molesting boys. Church leaders responded by removing him from his post. But no steps were made to investigate the problem, which caused an outcry from Austria’s Catholics. Late last month, Groer’s name was all over the papers again when a monk publicly accused him of molesting him as a child.

Fed up with the lack of a response on this matter, Thomas Plankensteiner, a theology teacher in Innsbruck, formed a group to urge the church to talk about its problems.

But the group’s focus quickly broadened to include some key issues, and it developed a petition demanding the Church loosen up its conservative positions on women, homosexuality and celibacy. Nearly 500,000 of Austria’s 1.2 million active Catholics signed it.

Stecher’s critical letter, which surfaced two weeks earlier, backed up the group’s demands on the celibacy issue.

``Under this kind of pressure, they must finally face the problems and not just push them away,″ Plankensteiner said.

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