VIENNA, Austria (AP) - Significantly fewer Austrians left the Roman Catholic Church in 2006, the Archdiocese of Vienna said Tuesday — a sign that a mass exodus of believers triggered by priest sex scandals and the nation's unpopular church tax is slowing.
Across the overwhelmingly Catholic country, 36,645 people formally withdrew from the church last year, a nearly 18 percent drop from the 44,609 believers who canceled their memberships in 2005, the archdiocese said.
The exodus peaked in 2004, when 45,000 Austrians left a church bedeviled by scandal and a chronic shortage of priests.
Many cited disgust over the discovery of up to 40,000 lurid images at a seminary in St. Poelten, 50 miles west of Vienna, including child porn and photos of young candidates for the priesthood fondling each other and their older religious instructors.
Other dropouts expressed discontent with a church tax collected by the government for the church — a levy that averages more than $300 a year. Catholics wishing to avoid paying it must formally renounce their affiliation to their church.
Since 1995, when accusations surfaced that the late Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer molested youths at a monastery in the 1970s, the Austrian church has lost almost half a million members, officials say.
The Catholic Church — which has 1 billion members worldwide — also has gone through trials and tribulations elsewhere in Europe. In France, for instance, the newspaper Le Monde published a poll Tuesday that found only half the population considers itself Catholic — a 16-point drop since 1994 — even though the official statistics say the country is over 80 percent Catholic. No margin of error was provided for the poll.
In overwhelmingly Catholic Ireland, weekly Mass attendance topped 80 percent of the populace through the 1980s but then fell off as the church went through a string of sexual scandals that toppled two bishops and a government.
Recent surveys indicate weekly attendance is leveling off at approximately half of the population, buoyed by an influx of more than 150,000 mostly Catholic immigrants from Poland.
But Michael Kelly, deputy editor of the Irish Catholic newspaper, said long-term trends looked bleak for the church. "You have massive suburban developments where churches physically aren't being built, and communities have no priests to serve them. So the decline in Mass attendance has further to run, because our culture is becoming less and less Catholic."
In Austria, even if the rate of withdrawals keeps slowing, parishes will conduct far more funerals than baptisms because of changing demographics, said Elizabeth Rathgeb, who works with the Diocese of Innsbruck.
"People today are more individualistic. They don't want to be part of a big organization that tells them what to think and believe," said Georg Plank, a Catholic lay leader in the southern city of Graz. "Perhaps some still suspect it's like that in the church."
But Monsignor Wilfried Kreuth, a cleric tracking the trend in the diocese of St. Poelten, where church departures slowed by more than 27 percent last year, called the shift "new and encouraging."
Underscoring how believers are now bucking the trend, the Vienna archdiocese — one of Europe's largest — said about 4,600 believers who had left the church in recent years reregistered as members in 2006, up from 4,009 in the previous year.
Vienna, the capital, recorded a 20 percent decline in the numbers of churchgoers who formally filed paperwork to withdraw. It was the lowest number of people to abandon the church since 1983, the archdiocese said.
Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to visit Austria in September with stops in Vienna and Mariazell, a popular pilgrimage site. His predecessor, John Paul II, twice visited Vienna.
Archdiocese spokesman Erich Leitenberger cited a recent survey showing that more than four in 10 of Austria's 8.2 million people attend Mass at least once a month, and 33 percent pack pews for Christmas, Easter and other major religious holidays. He said this suggests "the constant harping about a church crisis" is overblown.
"Nobody can suppress the three basic long-term questions. ... Where have I come from? Where am I going? And what's the meaning of my life?" he said.
Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press.