Pope appoints envoy to investigate sex scandal in Lower Austria


News that Pope John Paul II has appointed a special envoy to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct at a seminary in Lower Austria has brought a sigh of relief to many Catholics. The unusual step was taken after police discovered child pornography on computers at the Seminary.

The appointment of Bishop Klaus Kung - a conservative from the western province of Vorarlberg - has generally been welcomed by Church leaders. Kung will investigate and report back to the Pope on a scandal which has rocked the Catholic Church in Austria and made headlines around the world. On Wednesday most major newspapers carried headlines along the lines of - "the Pope dis-empowers Krenn" - a reference to the formerly powerful Bishop Kurt Krenn, who is in charge of the diocese of St Polten where the sex scandal in a priest's seminary was uncovered. The Archbishop of Vienna and head of the Catholic Church in Austria - Cardinal Christoph Schonborn expressed satisfaction that the Vatican had moved quickly to deal with the situation:

"Many people are displeased - disappointed - sad - angry. And I can only say that the Bishops - and myself as the Metropol of Vienna which includes the Diocese of St Polten - that we've moved immediately to deal with this. We didn't do it publicly but we informed the Pope about the situation and he's also reacted in the shortest possible time."

No-one is alleging that Bishop Krenn knew what was going on in the seminary where the child pornography was found and where priests were photographed kissing and fondling each other. But what has angered many church officials and ordinary Austrians is that when the allegations of misconduct entered the public domain - the bishop dismissed them and went on the attack against his critics. He said the media was exaggerating and out to get him. But the Bishop now must face an embarrassing investigation which could lead to him being removed from office. Lutger Muller is an expert on Catholic Church law:

"Assigning an Apostolic visitor is a very unusual measure. It is not expressly set out in Church law. And really is only a measure which is resorted to in a very difficult case."

Whatever the future of Bishop Kurt Krenn - divisions among Catholics in Austria are likely to remain. The church is split into a liberal branch which wants dramatic reform - including recognition of homosexuals and priests being allowed to marry. On the other side are the conservatives for whom Krenn was a powerful figure. Wolfgang Klein is the Religion Correspondent for ORF Radio.

"There's no deadline for Bishop Kung to complete his report and it is highly unlikely that it will ever be made public."