Date: Sat, 20 Jun 1998 11:41:31 EDT

Sure does seem that it's universal that catholic clergy can't keep it zipped.

Black balloon protest greets Pope in St Poelten
By Rolf Soderlind

ST POELTEN, Austria, June 20 (Reuters) - Liberal Austrian Roman Catholics angry with their arch-conservative bishop waved around 1,000 black balloons in protest as Pope John Paul arrived in St Poelten on Saturday.

On the second day of his visit to Austria, the Pope was driven to the city north-west of Vienna to celebrate an open air Mass with the country's most conservative and unpopular bishop, Kurt Krenn.

About 50 protesters waited on a street corner on the Pope's route to the Mass, holding black balloons symbolising the "cloud of sadness" they felt over recent events in the church.

They distributed leaflets urging the Pope to sack Krenn, whom he appointed diocesan bishop of St Poelten in 1991. "Holy Father, save our diocese," the leaflets said. A large poster read "Dialogue instead of dictatorship."

The Pope appeared to read the poster as he drove past in the "Popemobile," accompanied by Krenn, and he waved in the direction of the demonstrators.

The protesters had planned to release the balloons into the sky when the Pope arrived but were instructed not to by police, who said they could represent a hazard for helicopters.

The low-key protest prompted a fierce reaction from one group of well-dressed middle-aged women, who began bursting a bunch of unattended balloons by stamping on them energetically with their high-heeled shoes.

"It is indecent and loveless to greet the Pope with black balloons," an irate woman said.

Another woman turned angrily on Father Udo Fischer, a popular liberal priest whose dismissal by Krenn in February prompted a petition of protest signed by 170,000 people.

"You call yourself a Catholic? You are a disgrace to Austria!," the woman told him.

Fischer, looking slightly uncomfortable, told Reuters: "We have freedom of expression here in Austria."

"The black balloons are meant to symbolise black clouds, and there are black clouds over St Poelten as a result of the appointment of Krenn seven years ago," he added.

Disgruntled Catholics have collected 54,000 signatures calling for the dismissal of Krenn.

"The protesters are not allowed to give the lists to the Pope in any form," Fischer said. "It would be important for the Pope to be informed about the situation in the Austrian church."

Many Austrian Catholics hope the Pope will deal explicitly during his visit with the problems of the church, especially a sex abuse scandal involving the former archbishop of Vienna which prompted tens of thousands of people to leave the church.

Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer was forced to resign as Austria's top churchman in 1995 after being accused of sexually abusing a schoolboy 20 years earlier, charges which most of his fellow bishops now believe were substantially true.

Groer was banished to a convent in eastern Germany last month and forbidden to carry out his functions as a churchman -- one of the most severe punishments meted out to a cardinal in modern church history.

Krenn is the only one of Austria's bishops who has publicly defended Groer.

Fischer, still in office thanks to the protection of a local Benedictine abbey, said the Pope should apologise for appointing Groer and back reform or risk seeing the benefit of his visit evaporate quickly.

Another protester, Friedl Wagner, said it was not enough for the Pope to say that the Austrian church was close to his heart.

"We want to ask him to deliver us from the plague of Bishop Krenn and take a stand on the Groer affair," she said.

10:58 06-20-98
Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited.


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