Catholic church listens to its victims in Vienna cathedral

Vienna, Austria - "I am angry, my God," the elderly, bearded believer told a crowd of 3,000 Catholics in Vienna's Saint Stephen's cathedral.

The unusual scene played out in a liturgical service organized by Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn Wednesday that came in the wake of a wave of allegations of physical and sexual abuse committed by clergy.

The usual roles were switched: The cardinal confessed for the church and the faithful got a chance to point out its sins.

"My anger about the church's child molesters and violent education methods is endless," the man said as Schoenborn listened, sitting stooped at the altar of Vienna's main church.

The man attacked the church's undemocratic structures as one reason why these incidents could happen. "Absolute power leads to absolute corruption," he said.

Schoenborn responded by admitting that "the church has become guilty through its members."

He said, "We admit that we did not want to see the truth, that we covered up and gave false testimony."

One after another, several elderly abuse victims and acquaintances of victims stood up in the Gothic cathedral, walked to the altar, and described their pain and anger.

One woman spoke of her friend's son, a young disabled man who was sexually assaulted by a seminary priest while studying theology. "That was 10 years ago. Most of the time since then, he has spent in psychiatric care," she said.

"Save me from these horrible fears and nightmares," an elderly man implored God. "Evening after evening, memories return like barking stray dogs."

Another woman related physical punishments at a Catholic girls' boarding school in the 1960s, where students were often told by clergy to confess their sins. "We should instead have asked that their sins are forgiven," she said.

Since the start of the year, 566 people have called the church about alleged abuse cases, most of which happened before 1993. They are, therefore, unlikely to be prosecuted as the statute of limitations has passed.

Among the published incidents was one involving the head of a monastery in Salzburg. In this case, which happened some 40 years ago, abbot Bruno Becker admitted to sexually abusing a boy after having learned that the victim had already been abused by two other monks.

In reaction to the scandal that were spurred by similar revelations in Germany, the Austrian church has appointed an independent commissary to get to the bottom of the cases.

Waltraud Klasnic, the former governor of Styria province, was chosen to set up a commission and start its work as soon as possible.

As churchgoers left Saint Stephen's in central Vienna, many seemed moved by the event, but not everyone was convinced by the cardinal's words of penance.

"For me, it was a little too soft," said Margarete Mair, a grey- haired lady from Vienna. "It did not result in anything concrete."