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RELIGION : Austria Catholic Church Faces Scandal, Defections : Once untouchable institution is under fire.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In this once-upon-a-time home to the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, the Roman Catholic Church is being buffeted by an unprecedented series of attacks and scandals that have left many Austrians questioning their faith.

Half a million Austrians signed a petition last month demanding radical reform in the church, including allowing priests to marry and women to become priests. And in a surge of disillusion, more than 35,000 people have abandoned the church in recent months.

The turmoil began last spring when a former Catholic school student accused the head of the church, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, of sexually molesting him 20 years ago.

The 75-year-old Groer, who is also archbishop of Vienna, declined public comment on the allegations, and stepped down as head of the Bishops’ Conference. He is expected toretire next month.

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The scandal has shocked Austria, where leaders of the powerful Catholic Church had been regarded as virtually untouchable. For centuries, Austria was the bulwark shielding European Christendom against Turkey’s Islam and other Eastern faiths; today, more than 6 million of Austria’s nearly 8 million citizens are declared Roman Catholics, though only about 1.2 million are active churchgoers. Still, the government assesses a church tax on residents, who are required to register a faith.

Just as the Groer controversy seemed to settle down, a gay-rights advocacy group stunned the public by calling a press conference to declare that four senior bishops are homosexuals. The “outing” was the work of a group calling itself Opus Lei, a pun on the conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei.

Kurt Krickler, who heads the group, said he had testimony proving the claims, but he offered no evidence. The four bishops, including Christoph Schoenborn, who was named by the Vatican to fill in for Groer and is considered Groer’s likely successor, denied they were gay and threatened legal action against Krickler.

The activist stuck by his claims, which triggered energetic public debate in a rigidly conservative society where these matters are still largely taboo.

“We have launched a discussion about the role of the church in their world views, in their moral judgment of homosexuality,” Krickler told Blue Danube radio. “I am very satisfied with what we achieved. . . . There is unanimous consent that our demands are justified, which was not there before.”

Krickler’s group, in fact, has been widely criticized for its tactics. He conceded his agenda is largely political. Opus Lei hopes to force the government to lower the age of homosexual consent from 18 to 14, which is the age of heterosexual consent.

The conservative People’s Party, part of Austria’s ruling coalition, has close ties to the church and opposes changing the laws on homosexuality.

Opus Lei has said it intends to “out” three members of the People’s Party, as well as three members of the Social Democratic Party, next month.

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