Schönborn failed to act, abuse victim claims

The highest representative of the Roman Catholic Church in Austria has been accused of keeping quiet about a case of sexual abuse.

A lawyer said yesterday (Mon) he will launch legal action against Viennese Archbishop Christoph Cardinal Schönborn. The advocate’s client explained she consulted Schönborn in 1994 to tell him of sexual abuse by a priest. The woman, 45, said Schönborn – who was auxiliary bishop of Vienna at that time – failed to act despite her plea for help.

A spokesman for Schönborn – who was given chances to succeed late Pope John Paul II before German Josef Ratzinger was elected new Pope in 2005 – vehemently denied the claims. He explained Schönborn would have certainly taken action had he considered the accusations as severe. He described the meeting between Schönborn and the allegedly molested woman as a confessional conversation.

The spokesman also said that the so-called Klasnic commission financed therapy sessions for the woman. The commission headed by former Styrian People’s Party (ÖVP) Governor Waltraud Klasnic was established by Schönborn last year. The cardinal, who is regarded as a more liberal representative of the Church than some other Austrian bishops, hoped that people who became victims of clergymen’s sexual, physical and psychological abuse would get in touch with the panel to negotiate compensation payments.

Nearly 1,000 people contacted the commission. Around three quarters of victims who decided to get in touch are men, according to Die Presse newspaper. The daily paper also reports that many of them abstained from asking for money but demanded apologies instead.

More than 250 victims of abuse at boarding schools and other institutions run by the Catholic Church have received financial compensation so far after the Klasnic board checked their cases. Only seven claimants have been denied any money to this point, according to reports.

The Klasnic commission stopped taking on any further cases at the beginning of this year. Victims of abuse are asked to contact the Roman Catholic Church’s provincial ombudsman institutions. However, several independent victim protection groups called on these people not to get in touch with any organisations aligned to the Church. Some of these groups also found harsh words to comment the nomination of Klasnic due to her Catholic background.

The Catholic Church in Austria has been hit badly by the wave of accusations brought forward in the past two years. Official figures presented last January revealed that, with 87,393, more people than ever since the end of World War Two (WWII) in 1945 left the Church in 2010. The number also meant a 63 per cent increase compared to 2009, the previous post-war record year.

The 2010 data means that 65.1 per cent of the more than eight million people living in Austria are Catholics, down from 89 per cent in 1961. The share of Catholics in the population of Vienna ranged around just 39 per cent last year. The capital’s diocese suffered the highest exodus rate among the country’s nine provinces. More than 25,000 cancelled their membership in 2010, 53 per cent more than in the year before. The Viennese diocese recently decided to give up a church in the district of Ottakring to hand it over to the prospering Serbian-Orthodox community. Newspapers have been speculating that the same could happen to several other churches across the city.

A recent Karmasin study revealed that only one in five Austrians go to church regularly. Forty-seven per cent told the public opinion research agency that they believe in God. In another Karmasin poll, 45 per cent explained their trust in the Austrian Catholic Church is shattered due to the many abuse cases which had been disclosed in recent months. Another 27 per cent told Karmasin they had no trust in the Church anyway.