A cardinal accused of sexually abusing teenage students in the 1970s stepped down Thursday as head of the Austrian Bishops’ Conference amid growing demands from Catholic groups for an investigation.
But Cardinal Hans-Hermann Groer, the 75-year-old archbishop of Vienna, still remained silent about the allegations, first published 10 days ago.
Thursday’s move indicated he probably also would resign as archbishop.
Fellow bishops initially expressed support for Groer, and newspapers in this predominantly Roman Catholic country were cautious with the story or even ignored it.
But as more people come forward claiming to have been abused, pressure mounted on Groer to break his silence.
On Thursday, Austria’s biggest Catholic lay group, Catholic Action, demanded a church investigation of Groer. In addition, the main Catholic youth organization insisted on a statement from him to salvage what it called the church’s “massively damaged” credibility. Earlier, the deans of four Catholic theology faculties had appealed to the bishops’ conference to take a public stand on Groer.
The final straw for many Catholics appeared to be Groer’s re-election Tuesday as head of the bishops’ conference. Groer won only on the third vote, by a margin of 8-7. One bishop was sick and didn’t attend.
A Gallup poll published Thursday by the weekly magazine News found 69 percent of regular churchgoers thought Groer should resign. The poll had a margin of error of three percentage points.
Even Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, who normally does not comment on church affairs, said Wednesday he “cannot imagine anything else but that the church, in the next few days, will go public with a clear idea of a solution.”
There has been no official reaction from the Vatican. Groer, a staunch conservative named cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1986, applied for retirement last year when he turned 75, but the pope left him in his post.