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Catholic World News News Feature

Photographic Evidence August 01, 2004

Bishop Kurt Krenn, a conservative bishop who heads the small diocese of St. Pölten, about 60 miles west of Vienna, has earned himself the reputation of being controversial—of not shying away from conflicts, and of saying what is on his mind in and out of season.

When in 1995 allegations of the sexual abuse of minors were brought against the late Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer of Vienna, under whom Krenn had served as auxiliary bishop, Krenn defended the cardinal to the last; he insisted that the charges were “unthinkable.” The accuracy of the allegations against Cardinal Groer—which involved incidents that were said to have taken place 20 years earlier—was never finally proven. But the available evidence was enough to push the cardinal into an early retirement. Cardinal Groer stepped down as Archbishop of Vienna in 1995; three years later, after new charges against him came to light, he relinquished all of his ecclesial duties and privileges, including his membership in the College of Cardinals. (Cardinal Groer died last year.)

On the occasion of their ad limina visit to Rome in 1998, the Austrian bishops informed the Pope that they, as a college of bishops, had reached moral certainty that the allegations against Cardinal Groer had a basis in truth. Bishop Krenn, however, claimed he had never been consulted about this common statement. When the other Austrian bishops insisted—as it now seems, inaccurately—that indeed every bishop in Austria had seen the report before it was given to the Pope, Bishop Krenn lost his composure and demanded that “those liars shut their faces (die Lügner sollen das Maul halten).” While no one was mentioned directly by name, the context made it rather clear that among the “liars” was none other than Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the new Archbishop of Vienna and head of the Austrian bishops' conference.

Bishop Krenn is a fighting spirit, well accustomed to being the object of criticism, fair and unfair. For several years he has heard public demands for his resignation. In the past, those calls were based on either his perceived harshness in interpreting Catholic doctrines, morals, and disciplines; or the generally undiplomatic way he has expressed himself. But now he faces much louder calls for his ouster, for a quite different reason.

CONVERGING STORIES

During the second week of July, the Austrian news magazine Profil began offering extensive coverage on two different topics, with converging story lines.

In November 2003, the rector of the St. Pölten seminary was informed by the person in charge of the seminary's computer system that one of the computers available for common use contained hundreds of pornographic pictures—including some images involving children—which had been downloaded from the Internet. In Austria, the possession of child pornography is an offense against criminal law, and the rector duly reported the case to the police, who confiscated the computer and began an investigation. In March 2004 the police issued a report announcing that they found some 11,000 pornographic photographs on the computer, many of them subject to criminal prosecution. No formal charges were brought against anyone at that time, because authorities were not able to distinguish the activities of the many different users of that common computer.

Responding to the police findings, Bishop Krenn offered the theory that hackers might have entered the seminary’s computer system and entered the pictures in order to bring the seminary into disrepute.

In June of this year, however, the police made a surprise visit, searching the seminary and confiscating a personal computer on which they found still more child pornography. The owner of that machine, a 27-year-old Polish seminarian, has since been formally indicted, charged with the procuring and possession of child pornography; he has been expelled from the seminary.

As if finding child pornography at a seminary were not enough of a scandal, worse was yet to come. A second story line opened up when in their June search of the seminary, the police also found a digital camera, belonging to the same Polish seminarian, containing photographs that, although not relevant to their criminal prosecution, served greatly to compromise the rector and vice-rector of the seminary.

In one picture, the vice-rector and a seminarian, though fully dressed, are seen exchanging an open-mouthed kiss; in another, the rector is holding his hand over a seminarian’s private parts; again both are fully dressed. (In self-defense, the vice-rector has said that what is clearly depicted on the photograph never happened. The rector has observed that one cannot tell, from the photograph, whether his hand is actually touching the front of the seminarian’s pants.)

Bishop Krenn’s trust in his two closest assistants seemed to remain unshaken. Perhaps he gave credence to their explanations, but in any case, he was rather slow to respond to the impending crisis.

OUT IN THE OPEN

On July 10, 2004, an anonymous writer with access to these digital photos, dissatisfied with the bishop’s disinclination to act, mailed a letter to several Austrian newspapers, attaching the photographs and suggesting that they showed only the tip of “a homosexual iceberg” at the St. Pölten seminary. The photos were immediately published, and it was only at this point that the events at the seminary turned into a full-blown public sex scandal. Since then, both the rector and vice-rector have stepped down from their offices.

Bishop Krenn, so long accustomed to defending himself against public criticism, has failed to be convincing in this case. In his first reaction to the publication of the pictures, he tried to defend his two staff members, referring to the vice-rector’s tongue kiss as a Weihnachtskuss—a “Christmas kiss”—because it happened during a Christmas party. He dismissed the photo of the rector’s wandering hand as a “schoolboy prank,” having “nothing to do with homosexuality.” However, the Austrian public was not ready to accept these explanations. The pictures were explicit enough. Bishop Krenn’s chosen line of defense—saying that what was actually shown was not that as bad as it appeared—only served to earn him ridicule.

There is a deep irony in hearing Bishop Krenn, Austria’s thundering voice against immorality and champion of orthodoxy, speak of a homosexual kiss as a “Christmas kiss.” The case as a whole has resulted in an immense loss of credibility for the Church.

The liberal German paper Die Sueddeutsche Zeitung pointedly notes that as far as the homosexual practices of the rectors are concerned, there is a scandal only if one calls homosexuality a disordered tendency. For Die Sueddeutsche, the case simply shows that not even the Church herself can live up to what the paper called her “outmoded postulates, hostile to homosexuality”—of which Bishop Krenn, incidentally, has been among the most outspoken defenders.

The damage is done. Clearly, the Church cannot change her teaching on homosexuality; she is the custodian, not the maker, of the moral law. But she must make every effort to live up to her teaching. And if there are shortcomings, they must be called by name. To dismiss a homosexual embrace, or to speak of “schoolboy pranks”—when antics are performed by the clerics responsible for training young men for the priesthood—simply will not do.

As to the questions raised for priestly formation, they are manifold and grave. Unfortunately, it is not likely that the St. Pölten seminary is the only one in the world where there is a homosexual subculture.

[AUTHOR ID] Stephan Kampowski is a doctoral student and free-lance writer currently living in Rome.

[SIDEBAR]

A VATICAN INVESTIGATION

On July 20, the Vatican announced that Pope John Paul II has ordered an apostolic visitation of the St. Pölten diocese. Bishop Klaus Kung of Feldkirch, Austria, will conduct the visitation.

The Austrian bishops' conference had opened its own probe into the scandal on July 12. Erich Leitenberger, a spokesman for the Austrian bishops, allowed that the situation is "very grave." In public comments about the seminary investigation, the Austrian bishops' spokesman said that indications of a "homosexual network" had redoubled the bishops' concern.

Bishop Kung told a Vatican Radio audience that his goal would be "to restore confidence in the Church where it has been diminished." The Pope's investigator said that he was approaching "a delicate and difficult task with a heavy heart."

Bishop Kung disclosed that he would be able to exercise full authority within the St. Pölten diocese, insofar as he found it necessary to further his investigation. His primary task, he said, would be to provide "the clearest possible picture of the diocese and the events that happened in the seminary." When he concludes his inquiry, the bishop said, "we will report to the competent Vatican congregations," and await their responses. The "competent Vatican congregations," in the case of the St. Pölten visitation, will be the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Congregation for Bishops. The former could issue orders regarding the scandal-ridden seminary; the latter could respond to the widespread demands for the bishop's resignation.