VIENNA, Austria – An official with the Archdiocese of Vienna urged the Vatican on Wednesday to oust a Roman Catholic bishop in charge of a seminary where candidates for the priesthood hoarded child pornography and photos of themselves kissing and fondling each other.
The cleric, Bishop Kurt Krenn, dismissed the photos as part of a “schoolboy prank” and accused critics of exaggerating the case – the worst church scandal in Austria since allegations of pedophilia brought down a cardinal nearly a decade ago.
Police examined hard drives on computers seized at the seminary in St. Poelten, 50 miles west of Vienna, as part of a child pornography investigation.
Officials said the discs contained some 40,000 photographs and numerous videos, including child pornography and photos of young seminarians kissing and fondling each other and their older instructors and engaging in sex games.
As some of the photos began appearing in Austrian newsmagazines – depicting students in sexual situations while clad in black shirts and priestly collars – calls mounted for Krenn to resign.
Only if Krenn steps down “will an extensive investigation be possible,” said Helmut Schueller, the Vienna Archdiocese’s ombudsman for victims of sexual abuse.
The seminary’s director, the Rev. Ulrich Kuechl, already has resigned along with his deputy, Wolfgang Rothe.
But Krenn, 68, refused to step down and rebuffed his critics.
In a nationally televised interview, he conceded overall responsibility for the seminary, but rebuked the national bishops conference for pressing for his resignation and insisted the furor was overblown.
“Although these things naturally fall into my competence, I had nothing to do with them,” he said, calling the uproar “an exaggeration” and “a diocesan matter.”
Krenn’s spokesman, Michael Dinhobl, told the Austria Press Agency the bishop launched his own investigation Wednesday. The internal probe by a six-member committee was an attempt “to examine the allegations … in the light of church morals and canon law,” Dinhobl said.
The Vatican, which condemns homosexuality, has refused to comment.
The porn discovery, which was disclosed earlier this week, has scandalized many in the overwhelmingly Catholic nation.
Church leaders are still trying to heal divisions caused by allegations that the late Cardinal Hermann Groer molested students at an all-male boarding school in the 1970s. Groer, who died last year, was forced by the Vatican to resign in 1995 after the charges first surfaced.
The latest scandal has troubled Austrians on two fronts: Many are angered by the child pornography, which authorities say was downloaded mostly from a Web site in Poland, and the faithful are disturbed and disillusioned at the notion of prospective young priests cavorting with their elders.
The affair opens “a vexing debate over when borders between homosexuality and pedophilia, between the voluntary sexual practices of adults and the sexual abuse of children, become blurred,” columnist Thomas Kramar wrote in a commentary for the daily Die Presse.
Krenn, whose close ties to the Vatican led to a visit by Pope John Paul II to his diocese in 1998, was criticized at the time for defending Groer and insisting the cardinal was innocent of the pedophilia charges.
Krenn said published photos showing seminary students French-kissing each other were taken at the end of a holiday celebration and were merely traditional “Christmas kisses.”
“It had absolutely nothing at all to do with homosexuality,” and those involved will not be punished, he said.
Schueller, the archdiocese ombudsman, rejected that notion Wednesday, telling Austrian radio: “It is completely clear that the photos concerned homoerotic encounters.”
Many of the photos were taken by an unidentified 33-year-old Polish-born priest at the seminary who used a digital camera, according to authorities in the province of Lower Austria.
A police spokesman said it could be difficult to prove who was responsible for downloading the child pornography because the computers were shared by students and instructors.
Austrian Bishop Kurt Krenn says his seminarians were only involved in a “schooboy prank.”