The Catholic Church's Abu Ghraib

Michael S. Rose | | 16 July, 2004

       No, there was no torture or interrogation involved. No women either. They were all allegedly willing participants—and, to a man, they were men. One among their ranks also took photos that were published on Monday by the Austrian news magazine Profil.

Fr. Wolfgang Rothe, vice rector of the Sankt Poelten seminary,
in two compromising poses with unidentified student (Profil)

The photos showed seminarians and priests from Austria’s Sankt Poelten seminary fondling and kissing one another and engaging in sex games. Profil also reported that some 40,000 pornographic images and films were downloaded to the seminary’s computers, including photographs depicting acts of pedophilia and bestiality.

Consequently, German-language media outlets have been saturated this week with reports of the Austrian seminary scandal chock o’block full of lurid details in what has become the Catholic Church’s Abu Ghraib. Headlines such as "Seminary orgy rocks Church in Austria" (Irish Examiner), "Church probes perverse pictures" (Toronto Star), and "Porn case could torpedo bishop" (The Guardian), made news from Britain to Australia to America.

The scandal immediately prompted the resignation of two seminary officials, an internal investigation by the Austrian bishops conference, and calls for a criminal investigation since the scandal involves a large cache of child pornography—illegal in Austria as in most other countries.

Church officials also told Austrian Radio that they will ask the Vatican to remove Kurt Krenn as bishop of the Sankt Poelten diocese. Martin Walchhofer, who supervises the nation’s other Catholic seminaries, asserted that Krenn was ultimately responsible for the scandal and "must answer before the church and before God for all of this." (Krenn pulled Sankt Poelten's seminary from the Austrian system, claiming that the other Austrian seminaries were "too liberal.")

Helmut Schueller, the Archdiocese of Vienna’s ombudsman for victims of sexual abuse, said that only if Bishop Krenn steps down as leader of the Sankt Poelten diocese "will an extensive investigation be possible."

Asked whether he intended to resign over this scandal, Krenn said bluntly: "No."

The 68-year-old bishop dismissed the Profil accusations as "groundless." He refereed to the photographic evidence in hand as "harmless pranks" that "have nothing to do with homosexuality."

In a nationally televised interview, Krenn said the seminary furor was overblown, calling the Profil report an "exaggeration." Referring to a photo of two seminarians French-kissing one another, the indignant bishop defended the young men by saying the photos were taken at the end of a Christmas party, and the seminarians and their instructors were merely partaking in traditional "Christmas kisses."

The bishop did admit, however, in a public statement that he "may have made some wrong personnel decisions" at the seminary.

Meanwhile, seminary rector Ulrich Kuechl and vice-rector Wolfgang Rothe resigned their positions at the school. According to Profil, Kuechl and Rothe, both appointed by Krenn, had homosexual relations with students, using pedophile photos for stimulation. Both men were pictured in compromising positions with their seminarian students, prompting some to wonder if the priests had abused their positions to pressure seminarians to partake in the ungodly activities that have allegedly been a staple of life at Sankt Poelten for at least several years now.

Rector Ulrich Kuechl (left) and Vice-rector Wolfgang Rothe (right)
resigned from the Sankt Poelten seminary earlier this week.

Although now resigned, neither Kuechl nor Rothe admit to any guilt on their part. Kuechl characterized the Profil report as "pure lies" and threatened to sue for libel. When presented the photographic evidence, he, like his boss Krenn, said the photos were "open to interpretation." He compared the actions in the photos to the way soccer players handle one another after a particularly good play.

Explaining his resignation, Kuechl added: "The slander spread in the media by a former seminary member against myself has made such a negative impression on public opinion that my further conduct of office would probably be a great burden for the seminary and diocese."

The scandal doesn’t stop there. In order to understand that the homosexual transgressions were not mere anomalies, Profil quotes one unnamed seminarian who claims that two fellow students considered themselves a ‘same-sex couple’ and received the ‘sacrament" of marriage in a not-so-secret ceremony.

To that accusation, Kuechl also says balderdash.

Even Austrians who see no real problem with grown men kissing and fondling each other in the halls of a Catholic seminary (or anywhere else) seem scandalized by the revelation of child pornography.

Socialist party spokesman Hannes Jarolim, for example, urged Austria’s Interior Ministry to launch a criminal investigation into the charges.

Reports in the U.S. media thus far have tended to downplay the gay sex parties and honed in on the charges of child pornography.

Photos are the key
Homosexual sex scandals are, regrettably, nothing new to Catholic seminaries. Denial, avoidance and cover-up are also old hat in these same circles. If it wasn’t for an unnamed 33-year-old Polish-born priest who took photos of the misdeeds with his compact digital camera, there would have been no resignations, no calls for an investigation, no emergency meetings. There would only have been the characteristic obfuscation and denials on the part of Church leaders. Conservative Catholics would have defended the priests and bishop, calling the accusations false and vilifying the whistleblowers as psychologically unfit. At the same time, liberal Catholics would have dismissed the accusations of homosexual revelry as the product of an overactive conservative imagination. Or they may have simply ignored the whole issue.

That’s certainly the pattern Church watchers have observed over the past decade on these issues. When my seminary exposé book Goodbye, Good Men came out in 2002, detailing similar incidents (for men kissing in seminary hallways, for example, see page 147), the claims made by dozens of former seminarians who had experienced the pressures of the so-called "gay subculture" at seminary were dismissed in many cases as nothing less than pure fantasy.

Despite the fact that certain seminaries became widely known by nicknames such as The Pink Palace, Notre Flame, and the Faggot Factory, seminary rectors and bishops could think of nothing more original than to deny that anything was wrong, calling the charges scurrilous and groundless. Nothing less than compromising photos published in Newsweek would have made them eat their words.

The Daughters of Trent
The Austrian scandal doesn’t come as a shock to those who have been hearing the outrageous details of goings-on inside many Catholic seminaries. What does come as a surprise to many is that such bacchanalia fests would take place at seminaries known to liberals as "arch-conservative" (a completely meaningless label) and directed by priests and a bishop regarded as theologically orthodox.

Perhaps this speaks to a different state of affairs in Austria than in the United States. But then again, maybe not. The so-called Daughters of Trent, tradition-minded gay priests and seminarians, have their own foothold in the American Church. And so much more scandalous are they who practice the opposite of what they openly preach.

Tridentine groups, for example, have had their share of lurid homosexual scandals in recent years. Rev. Carlos Urritigoity, the founder and Superior General of the Scranton-based Society of St. John was suspended for sexual molestation of male students, but only after years of denials and obfuscation by the priest, his society, and Scranton’s Bishop James Timlin, known as one of the more conservative American prelates. To be sure, candid photos would have spared a lot of needless scandal in this case.

The Institute of Christ the King, a venerable international order of traditional Catholic priests loyal to Rome, suffered the scandal of its North American superior, Fr. Timothy Svea, being sentenced to 18-months in jail for tying a 16-year-old boy to his bedpost in the interest of sex games.

"It’s a wonderful thing to have priests who will say the traditional Mass," wrote Roger McCaffery, former editor of The Latin Mass in a 2002 editorial, "but let’s stop the mindless cheerleading and face reality. The law of averages suggests that there are more scandals to come on the Catholic right."

In non-traditionalist but conservative circles, Fr. Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Rome-based Legionaries of Christ, has been accused by at least eight former seminarians of gross sexual abuse. Despite mounds of credible evidence stopping short of photographs, Maciel and his order have steadfastly maintained the now-octogenarian priest’s innocence and attacked his accusers as anti-Catholic agitators, despite the fact that one of them is still a priest and not one has benefited either personally or financially by making the accusations. This whole sorry epic is recounted in Jason Berry’s Vows of Silence, although the book risks being wholly dismissed as empty polemic due to the author’s thinly-veiled liberal agenda.

The Austrian scandal is just another chip away at the false sense of security many conservative and traditional Catholics once had in thinking they’d be safe in trusting the clerics they admire for their ostensible orthodoxy and commitment to the Catholic faith.

Bishop Kurt Krenn is at the epicenter of the Sankt Poelten scandal

The ongoing scandal of Kurt Krenn
It’s not clear how many Austrian Catholics, conservative or otherwise , have ever admired Sankt Poelten’s Bishop Kurt Krenn.

His defiance in such delicate matters is nothing new. Known as a conservative if reactionary prelate in a country of liberal bishops (most more liberal than their American counterparts), Krenn made headline news in Austria in 1998 when he staunchly defended Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, also a conservative, against pedophilia charges. The cardinal was later forced by the Vatican to resign his post as the Archbishop of Vienna after it became clear he had been molesting students at an all-make boarding school for years.

The Groer affair came to a head during Pope John Paul II’s 1998 trip to Austria. The Pope was greeted in Sankt Poelten by 1,000 black balloons in the hands of Catholics protesting Bishop Kurt Krenn. They also distributed leaflets urging the Pope to sack the bishop. Krenn’s defiant support of a guilty pedophile cardinal was, for them, the last straw.

Needless to say, these Catholics now have more ammunition to use against the unpopular Krenn. They also have a lot more allies in the campaign to oust the defiant bishop.

An open rift between Krenn and Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn has been ongoing for years, and judging from statements coming out of various Church officials in Austria, Krenn is not going to enjoy much support from his fellow churchmen. Homosexual orgies and child pornography at Krenn’s seminary is over the top—even for them.

There is, of course, a silver lining to this scandal, as with most that play out in this way: reasonable people can no longer deny the sickness. It’s exposed now and needs more exposure, until the situation heals properly. That means a thorough cleaning of the Augean stables.

Michael S. Rose is the author a several books including the New York Times bestseller Goodbye, Good Men. He is Executive Editor of

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