- Associated Press - Sunday, June 27, 2010

VIENNA, Austria | Historically a potent symbol of Catholicism in Europe, Austria has in recent years been known more as the center of a taboo-breaking movement to liberalize the church.

Now, reformers here are ramping up their campaign for change amid worldwide outrage over the priest sex-abuse scandal.

And while much of the push comes from the grass roots, the country’s powerful cardinal recently caused a stir with strong gestures in support of reform, raising the stakes in the confrontation between the Vatican and dissidents pushing to allow priests to marry and for women to be ordained.

What is particularly troubling for Rome is that Austria — which in past centuries was famous for being a bulwark against the Protestant Reformation — is losing worshippers in record numbers as calls for reform grow stronger.

Tens of thousands of Austrian Catholics — many of whom still consider themselves devout — are leaving the church each year, disgusted by the sex-abuse scandal and frustrated by what they see as the Catholic hierarchy’s outdated ways.

For 76-year-old Erwin Bundschuh, who left the church about six weeks ago, the main problem today is an ivory tower mentality that rejects dialogue and cuts itself off from the realities of the modern day.

“You can’t redesign a religious community every day, but you also can’t pretend as if nothing has happened in 2,000 years,” Mr. Bundschuh said as he strolled past Vienna’s famous St. Stephen’s Cathedral. “There should be an open dialogue about certain things, but it’s always choked off.”

Last week, the head of the Vienna Archdiocese’s church tax office estimated that up to 80,000 of Austria’s roughly 5.5 million Catholics could leave the church this year — a new record. Last year alone, 53,216 people formally had their names removed from church registries, a 31 percent increase compared with 40,654 in 2008.

Many have dropped out to also avoid paying a highly unpopular government-imposed church tax, questioning whether they should help finance an organization with which they have increasingly divergent views.

As the sex-abuse scandal has grown, critical Austrian Catholics have stepped up their reform campaign — holding news conferences and pressuring church officials.

In May, the Priest Initiative — a group of critical clerics — adopted a strongly worded resolution that criticized the “absolutist” church structure and urged bishops and ordinary believers to take a stand.

The Vatican has had no comment on the turmoil in the Austrian Catholic Church.

Amid increasing calls for change, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn — the country’s top churchman and a papal confidant seen as a possible successor to Pope Benedict XVI — has stepped into the fray more forcefully in the past few months.

“The wall of silence has to be broken,” he told reporters last week as he presented measures to prevent clerical abuse and help victims. “This is not allowed to happen and cannot be allowed to repeat itself.”

Set to take effect Thursday and approved by all of the country’s bishops, the measures foresee a unified approach by church abuse complaint centers to probe and deal with allegations against priests, employees and volunteers of church-run institutions. It also mandates the creation of a foundation for abuse victims to cover their therapy costs and possible compensation demands.

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