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The priest shortages also come as many Catholics in Germany, Austria and Switzerland are formally breaking ties with the church.

In 2009, 123,681 German Catholics left the church, according to church figures. Initial estimates for 2010 indicate a dramatic increase in dropout rates: In the Augsburg Diocese alone, 11,351 members cut their ties to the church last year, compared with 6,921 in 2009. Germany has an estimated 25 million Catholics.

In many European countries in which parishioners pay a church tax, financial reasons play a role in attrition. But theologians credit the rising rate to the sex-abuse scandals.

“There is no doubt that the explosion of people leaving the church was one of the most visible consequences of the [abuse scandals],” said Rudolf Hofer, a professor at the University of Graz in Austria and also a signatory.

Last year, a series of sex-abuse allegations rocked Germany’s Catholic Church, unleashing a wave of cases across the country that led to revelations of abuse in other parts of Europe as well. It sparked a fierce public debate over Catholicism and embarrassed the church leadership in the pope’s native country.

“It’s really wounded the German church very severely,” said Mathew Schmalz, a religion professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and a specialist on the Catholic Church. “It’s not just your ordinary crisis. It really cuts to the heart of what it means to be a Catholic.”

Some are trying to tackle the problem by reaching out to the community. Michael Dederichs, pastor of the St. Antonius Church in Dusseldorf, Germany, hangs large billboards on his church tower with encouraging messages such as “Our doors are always open.” He sends parishioners to talk with former Catholics. “Each year, we usually have about 30 to 40 people come back,” he said.

Meanwhile, some doubt the church can change. “We’ve seen all this before. There are always these movements,” said Norbert Denef, who was abused by Catholic priests as a boy in Germany and serves as a victims advocate. “The church is hierarchical, and that hasn’t changed in 2,000 years. The church isn’t able to reform.”

Yet Mr. Schmalz and others from the College of the Holy Cross say the size and depth of the crisis could push the church to redefine itself: “I think the way in which this scandal is moving — it has moved to Europe, so it shows it is not just an American problem — will force the Catholic Church to change in substantial ways while trying to stay true to its core mission.”