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Monday, March 2, 1998 Published at 14:50 GMT


Vatican probes Austrian prelate
image: [ Disgraced former Austrian church leader Gröer, (L), with successor Christoph Schoenborn ]
Disgraced former Austrian church leader Gröer, (L), with successor Christoph Schoenborn

Two Vatican investigators have arrived in Austria to look into a sex abuse case involving the former head of the Roman Catholic Church there. The events in Austria follow a number of controversial sex abuse cases involving Catholic priests, as the BBC World Service Religious Affairs Reporter, Jane Little, reports.

In a highly unusual case the Austrian church hierarchy has announced that it thinks the accusations are 'essentially accurate' and has called on the accused, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, to repent publicly.

The Cardinal was forced to resign as Archbishop of Vienna in 1995 after he was accused of sexually abusing students at a seminary 20 years ago.

This is the latest and most explosive sex abuse scandal to hit the church and all indications are that it is now engaged in a desperate damage limitation exercise.

Mass protests from Austria's Catholics, following the demotion of a priest who spoke out against the Cardinal, show that a policy of silence will not be tolerated.

The current Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Schoenborn, who is tipped to be in line for the papacy, has acknowledged the public mood by saying it's the church's responsibility to speak out.

That is a rare concession. Just last month, Cardinal Daneels of Belgium was admonished in court for playing down the actions of a priest accused of sexual abuse.

Counting the cost

But it was high profile cases across the English-speaking world which resulted in huge compensation claims against the church, that have forced it to look more closely at its approach.

Last year in the United States, the Diocese of Dallas was ordered to pay out a record $120m to 11 people abused as children by one priest.

The cases hinge on showing the church was negligent, and that is why at various local levels it has introduced strict guidelines.

In England and Wales a priest who is accused is immediately suspended pending investigation, a situation many criticise as victimising the priest.

The Bishops' Conference in Australia has proposed the introduction of glass screens in confessionals to protect both parties.

But ironically it is the church in Ireland, which has seen some of the worst reported cases of priests involved in sex abuse, that has proved the most resilient.

In 1994, controversy over the delay in extraditing a priest who was eventually convicted of sex offences against 20 children over more than three decades, led to the collapse of the government.

But Irish Catholics did not turn on the church.

In Austria, that is different, and the Vatican will be eager to prevent the public anger and frustration from spreading to other parts of the Catholic world.


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