Signs of the Times

Bishop to Investigate Austrian Seminary

Pope John Paul II appointed a special investigator to gather information on a pornography and sex scandal in an Austrian seminary. In a one-line statement, the Vatican announced on July 20 that the pope will send Bishop Klaus Küng of Feldkirch, Austria, a member of Opus Dei, as apostolic visitor to the Diocese of Sankt Pölten and the seminary there.

An apostolic visitation is a formal Vatican investigation into a particular, usually serious, problem in a local church, diocese or religious order. The visitor’s mandate generally involves investigating and evaluating facts and reporting back to the Holy See, possibly with recommendations for a course of action.


The seminary in Sankt Pölten, 50 miles west of Vienna, grabbed headlines in mid-July when the Austrian media published pictures of priests and seminarians kissing and fondling each other. Austrian authorities said the images had been found along with more than 40,000 photos and videos, which included child pornography, on seminary computers.

Immediately after the disclosure, the Austrian bishops’ conference issued a statement pledging a full and swift investigation. Anything that has to do with homosexuality or pornography has no place at a seminary for priests, it said. But Bishop Kurt Krenn of the Diocese of Sankt Pölten dismissed the case as a boys’ prank, saying some of the photos were taken at a Christmas gathering. What I saw can’t in any sense be described as homosexuality. These were simply silly extravagances, the bishop told Austria’s state television station, ORF.

The rector, the Rev. Ulrich Küchl, and his deputy, the Rev. Wolfgang Rothe, have resigned after they were featured in photos. Bishop Krenn said on July 12 that he would not resign. In a separate ORF interview on July 13, Bishop Krenn rejected the scandal allegations as a media fabrication and said he would set up a commission to investigate.

On July 19 state prosecutors charged a 27-year-old Polish seminarian with possession and distribution of child pornography, which under a new law in Austria carries a maximum two-year prison sentence and a fine.

The president of the Austrian bishops’ conference, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, described the pope’s move as an exceptional and rarely used method and said he hoped Bishop Küng could work peacefully and decisively in quickly considering all the problems and accusations.

He added that the bishops’ conference and Archbishop Giorgio Zur, apostolic nuncio to Austria, had warned for months that Bishop Krenn was dangerously ignoring the rules of recruitment by admitting students to the Sankt Pölten seminary without checking why they had been rejected elsewhere. An Austrian church source said Catholic priests from the diocese had voiced misgivings after the appointment of Father Küchl as seminary rector in 2002, while a group of seminarians also had complained unsuccessfully to Bishop Krenn about senior staffers in November 2003.

The last time an apostolic visitor was sent to Austria was in 1998, in response to a scandal involving the late Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer of Vienna. Cardinal Groer had stepped down as archbishop of Vienna in 1995 amid allegations by five male former students that he had sexually abused them as youths in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Cardinal Groer continued to serve as prior of a Benedictine monastery in Austria until additional allegations surfaced involving adult men formerly under his supervision. In early March 1998, the U.S.-born abbot primate of the Benedictine order, Marcel D. Rooney, O.S.B., was named by the pope to investigate. The following month, Cardinal Groer formally announced he would give up his public duties in response to a request by Pope John Paul.

Catholics Suspect Bishops of Covering Up Facts

U.S. Catholics regard the clerical sexual abuse scandal and the bishops’ handling of it as two of the most serious problems facing the church, according to a study by two leading sociologists. They found that most Catholics questioned in a nationwide telephone survey think bishops are covering up the facts about sexual abuse. Older and more active Catholics tended to have more confidence in bishops than did younger Catholics or those less involved in church activities. Nearly three-fourths of the respondents said the failure of bishops to stop the abuse was a bigger problem than the abuse itself.

Dean R. Hoge of The Catholic University of America and James D. Davidson of Purdue University, both sociologists, designed the survey, which was sponsored by the University of Notre Dame as part of a larger initiative to serve clergy and lay leaders in the church.

One portion of the survey listed 12 issues facing the church and asked respondents to rank each as a serious problem, somewhat of a problem or not a problem for the church.

Eighty-five percent said the fact that some priests have sexually abused young people was a serious problem, and 77 percent said it was a serious problem that some bishops have not done enough to stop priests from such abuse. By comparison, only 62 percent regarded the shortage of priests and sisters as a serious problem, and only 53 percent thought it was a serious problem that young adults are not as involved in the church as they should be.

Less than half ranked any of the other eight issues as serious church problems. These included: Parents do not teach their children the faith as they should, 49 percent; there are too many men with a homosexual orientation in the priesthood, 42 percent; church teachings on sexual morality are out of touch with reality, 40 percent; women are not involved enough in church decision making, 38 percent.

When asked if bishops are being very open and honest about the clergy sexual abuse scandal or are covering up the facts, 62 percent said the bishops were covering up, and only 20 percent thought they were being open and honest; 12 percent said they saw a mixture of truth and coverup.

Suspicion of the bishops was strongest among those who are not registered in a parish and do not regularly attend Mass, Hoge said, but even among [registered] parishioners and active Catholics, a majority of lay people suspect the bishops are not telling the whole truth about the scandal.

The researchers also compared respondents by age groups. Core beliefssuch as Christ’s presence in the sacraments and the need to be concerned about the poortend to unite Catholics in all four age groups, they said. On most other issues, they added, generational differences are important in the American Catholic community and need to be taken into account by church leaders. The biggest gap is between those born in 1940 or before and the others.

One example of that gap was a question about weekly Mass attendance. Three-fourths of those 63 and older thought that was essential to the Catholic faith, but only half of those in each of the other age groups held that view. Similarly, on moral teachings only in the 63-plus group did a majority of respondents say homosexual acts are always wrong (69 percent), abortion is always wrong (55 percent), and premarital sex is always wrong (64 percent). In the three other generations combined, less than one-fourth considered premarital sex always wrong, 35 percent said abortion is always wrong, and 39 percent said homosexual acts are always wrong.

More Retired Priests and Priestless Parishes

The just-released 2004 Official Catholic Directory shows several trends that will have a significant impact on the church in coming years. These include a growing number of retired priests in a shrinking pool of clergy, more parishes without a resident pastor and a steady decline in the number of church marriages.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ dioceses, which cover all U.S. states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands, had a total of 28,967 diocesan priests, of whom 8,302 were listed as retired, sick or absent. In other words, only 20,665 had official church assignments.

This means that at the start of 2004, 28.7 percent of U.S. diocesan priests held no church assignmentup nearly 1 percent from last year. The increasing ratio of priests without an assignment reflects the aging of the U.S. Catholic clergy, as most of the men in that category are retired or relieved of duties because of age-related illnesses.

While the directory gives no retirement figures for religious orders, a study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate in 2000 found that the average age of priests in religious orders was four years higher than that of diocesan priests. The pool of religious available for parish duties is also diminishing.

When CARA analyzed data in the 2001 directory, it found that 15.2 percent of parishes in U.S.C.C.B. dioceses2,929 out of 19,305were without a resident pastor. By 2004, despite closing or merging of parishes in the intervening years, the figures for priestless parishes rose to 16.5 percent3,157 out of 19,108. Most of these parishes are administered by a nonresident priest, usually the pastor of a nearby parish. But the number of deacons, religious, lay people or pastoral teams directing parishes continues to grow. In 2001 there were 555 such parishes; in 2004 there were 570.

The decline in marriages recorded by the church has been steeper than the decline seen in the general American population over the past two decades. While the U.S. Catholic population grew from 52.4 million in 1984 to 67.3 million in 2004, the annual number of marriages fell from 348,000 to 232,000. That represents a 48 percent drop in church-recorded marriage rates in 20 yearsfrom about 6.6 marriages per 1,000 Catholics 20 years ago to 3.4 per 1,000 Catholics today.

Figures from the U.S. government’s National Center for Health Statistics indicate the general annual rate of marriage declined from 10.6 per 1,000 people in 1982 to 7.8 per 1,000 in 2002a 24 percent drop over roughly the same 20 years.

The directory showed some drop in the number of U.S. Catholic colleges, high schools and elementary schools and in the number of students attending them, but slight increases in the number of elementary and high school youths served by parish-based religious education programs.

More Work for Polish Section as Pope Falters

A frail Pope John Paul II dictates his speeches and texts to a dedicated team of Polish priests, sometimes letting his assistants complete the text after the pope conveys his message, said a Polish priest who works for the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. The work of the Secretariat of State’s Polish section has increased as the health of the pope falters, the Rev. Pawel Ptasznik said in an interview with Poland’s Catholic information agency, KAI, in June. Father Ptasznik said the pope writes the majority of his texts, although he’s recently been dictating them and sometimes asks us to complete them.

When he wants to write or convey some text to the Curia, he calls me in and dictates it. This applies mostly to speeches. He previously dictated these in detail, but he now more often explains his main thought and leaves me to develop it. He makes the final decision, however, as to how far the text meets his expectations, he said.

Father Ptasznik said the pope’s Polish assistants are with the pope practically all the time, especially now that his possibilities of movement are limited. He said the pope currently spent more time praying and reading, and had stopped inviting guests to morning Mass in his private chapel.

News Briefs

Following a rash of news reports claiming the U.S. bishops defied the Vatican’s Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on the question of withholding Communion from Catholic politicians whose actions conflict with church teaching on abortion, Cardinal Ratzinger said the bishops’ statement on the issue is very much in harmony with his recently leaked memo on the topic.

California’s Catholic bishops have endorsed a constitutional challenge by the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa, and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to a California law that temporarily suspended the time limit on seeking civil damages in decades-old sexual abuse cases. Under the law, between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2003, plaintiffs claiming sexual abuse in California during childhood were allowed to file civil claims regardless of how long ago the alleged offense occurred, whether a previous claim in the case had already been settled, or whether the claim was previously barred by the statute of limitations. By the close of 2003 nearly 800 previously barred civil actions were filed.

British church and pro-life leaders have welcomed British lawmakers’ calls to review the country’s abortion laws. Calls to review the legislation came after publication of pictures of fetuses as young as 12 weeks stretching and kicking in the womb. The photos were produced by a new type of ultrasound scanning that offered an unprecedented look into the world of unborn babies.

The president of the Catholic Health Association praised a House committee for its vote on July 14 to add conscience protection language to a provision on federal abortion funding. The added language will protect hospitals and other institutional and individual health care providers from government discrimination when they decline to provide, pay for or refer for abortion services, said the Rev. Michael D. Place, president and C.E.O. of the C.H.A., in a statement on July 15.

Saying it has more than 100 members who were sexually abused by nuns, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests has asked the Leadership Conference of Women Religious to hear from abuse victims during the annual L.C.W.R. assembly in August.

A telephone survey examining the attitudes of moviegoers who saw The Passion of the Christ found that while a solid majority liked the film, seeing the movie brought about few changes in individuals’ faith or beliefs. Nine out of 10 viewers rated the film as either excellent or good, according to a survey conducted by the Barna Group of Ventura, Calif. But only 18 percent of the moviegoers said they had changed their religious behavior as a result of the film, 16 percent said they had changed their religious beliefs because of the movie’s content, and 10 percent said they had done both.

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11 years 11 months ago
The damage to Catholic family life and its dimensions, as revealed in the statistics published in Signs of the Times on Aug. 2, may even surpass the sexual abuse scandal as a pastoral problem of momentous import. A close examination of the figures reveals that approximately half the marriages of Catholics are outside the church. Why is the beautiful Catholic wedding ceremony avoided?

There is a clash between the perspectives of the young faithful and those of the chanceries and tribunals, who are influenced by the burden of marriage cases. These officials make the rules that many young people perceive as arbitrary hoops to jump through and an infringement on their prerogative to judge and plan their lives. Well-meant care to block invalid marriages often has the opposite effect. They are multiplied.

More trust in the conscience of the parties about freedom to marry would do more good than harm. The six-month waiting period also comes across as heavy-handed. Much of the mandatory premarriage instructions would be more effective after marriage. A tourist’s appetite to know more about a country is whetted when he is on the spot. This might stem Catholic divorces, which now vary little in number from the general population. More trust in pastors and the faithful would be welcome.

Little help has been sought from available, skilled sociologists to study the formation of policies and measure their impact. To ignore the problem as it now exists would be unconscionable, exponentially so.

And besides, how can we increase vocations in this milieu?


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