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Tuesday, March 3, 1998 Published at 18:47 GMT

World: From Our Own Correspondent

Austrian Catholic Church divided
image: [ Disgraced former Austrian church leader Gröer, (L), with successor Christoph Schoenborn ]
Disgraced former Austrian church leader Gröer, (L), with successor Christoph Schoenborn

In February the Pope appointed Vienna's Archbishop Schoenborn to the College of Cardinals. The Vatican has finally started an investigation into the alleged sexual activities of his predecessor, Cardinal Gröer. Gröer stepped down as Archbishop in 1995, amid allegations that he'd sexually abused five teenage boys. According to Nigel Glass in Vienna, the Gröer affair has divided Austria's Catholics:

Click here to hear the despatch from Nigel Glass (3'24")
The appointment of Christoph Schoenborn and the subsequent mass in St Peter's Square aroused enormous public interest. The Vatican security staff were almost overwhelmed by it.

But many Austrians would have been more interested in getting into a very secret meeting the previous day, when the Pope was speaking to the disgraced Cardinal Hans Herman Gröer. He's facing fresh allegations that he made sexual advances to a number of monks.

Even Archbishop Schoenborn didn't know that his predecessor had been summoned to Rome.

There's a stall at a Vienna public market that sells two types of statuette - figures of Catholic devotion: Jesus Christ and Mary; alongside explicit figures of couples engaged in sex. Once I replaced a figure on the wrong side of the imaginary line separating the two. The middle aged woman stall keeper discreetly slid it back to its proper place.

Most people in mainly Roman Catholic Austria have no trouble finding a proper place for the joys of the flesh alongside their religion. Now they want their priests to join them. A respected Austrian newspaper found that 82 per cent of regular churchgoers want freedom for priests to marry.

Most priests appear to agree, recent figures say that two-thirds don't keep their vows of celibacy.

Last year a village priest was sacked after his Bishop found that he'd been raising a family for eighteen years. Father Cornelius's loyal parishioners had kept his secret, and campaigned against his dismissal.

At about the same time as the villagers began turning a loyal blind eye to Father Cornelius's first new baby, the Catholic hierarchy began ignoring the complaints about Cardinal Gröer's alleged paedophilia and sexual harrassment of monks at Goettweig Abbey.

Last week, a Father Udo was sacked by his Bishop, Krenn, after saying complaints had been ignored for decades. Bishop Krenn, also responsible for Goettweig Abbey, had forbidden him to comment on the Gröer affair.

On a TV discussion last month, Bishop Krenn demonstrated how he might have dealt with any complaints from Goettweig's troubled monks. An ex-nun revealed she had been sexually assaulted by a priest, but had been too afraid to tell anybody.

Bishop Krenn rejected her story as unsubstantiated. The nun broke into tears, saying: "but it happened to me".

Now the Church has set up a telephone hot line for sexually assaulted monks, priests and nuns.

Many Catholics are offended by the contrast between the Church's refusal to investigate allegations of criminal activity by Cardinal Gröer while maintaining its traditional rejection of consenting homosexual relationships.

Last year, a Father Wahala defied a ban on holding a mass in Vienna for homosexuals. Highlighting the emotive homophobic language associating homosexuality and dirt, the priest held an unauthorised mass at one of the city's sewage outflows. He was sacked.

As Archbishop Schoenborn returns to face these conflicts between traditional church values and a society intent on rejecting many of them, he has one great and mysterious comfort. Nearly 80 per cent of Austrians continue to describe themselves as Catholic.

The mystery is why a people who have already legalised divorce, homosexuality, birth control, abortion, prostitution, and pornography, and now attack priestly celibacy, embrace a religion that rejects all of these.

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