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From abuse crisis, Germany's Roman Catholics seek reform

The Roman Catholic priest sex abuse crisis is prompting Germany's faithful to revisit the spiritual roots of their church.

By Staff writer / April 30, 2010

The Augsburg Dom cathedral in southern Germany. German Bishop Walter Mixa resigned his post amid allegations of physical abuse and financial misconduct. The priest sex abuse crisis sweeping across Europe and the US is causing mass defections, but also inward soul-searching for change in the Roman Catholic church.

Matthias Schrader/AP

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Munich, Germany

Revelations of child abuse by priests in Europe and the United States are a crisis for the Roman Catholic church. But they are also leading Catholics to speak more freely, raising reform voices among lay members, priests, and theologians.

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The top priority for many Catholics is generating a more spiritual and biblical focus for the church and ending a traditional "two-track" Catholicism, where priests are implicitly considered to have a higher religious nature. They also see the abuse crisis as part of a deeper malaise and hypocrisy that can still be redeemed.

In Germany, Pope Benedict's native land, where the abuse crisis hit suddenly and hard in a series of cases since January, some dioceses have reported surging defections by parishioners. Devout Catholics have been reeling, but are also searching to restore moral credibility to a church they love.

Reformist Catholic theologian Hans Kung, who is censured by Rome, called it "the worst credibility crisis since the Reformation" in an April 18 open letter to Catholic bishops. Mr. Kung laid out plans for change and charged the pope with having sent "a solemn document" in 2001 to all bishops telling them to keep abuse violations secret.

'The only way to be credible again'

But reform voices also include that of Wolfgang Sturm, a craggy-faced mechanical engineer who for 19 years has been part of a lay Catholic council in Munich. Mr. Sturm says he "is in the church because I believe Jesus Christ's message from 2,000 years ago." Last week at a sprawling Catholic school and sports complex in a Munich suburb, Sturm called, along with some 150 other lay Catholics, for church leaders to fess up clearly.

"I want them to stand in front of the people and say it doesn't matter how much pedophilia there is in the secular world, or in families, or by soccer coaches. I want them to stand and say this crisis is our responsibility and we admit it. It is the only way to ever be credible again," he told one smaller group.

With the priesthood in crisis, many lay council members want to go into the community and try to restore the image of the church. Sturm, like an estimated 70 percent of German Catholics, has "no problem" with married priests and thinks the rules on mandatory celibacy should be changed.

For retired Munich businessman Rudiger Bruggemann, a lifelong Catholic, the crisis has brought to a head the "main question" of his life: "Do you stay in the church or do you leave? I stay because it is the only way to help. You have no voice if you leave," he says. "But at this point, after 74 years, I can no longer take things at face value. Our problems are extensive, and we need the message of Christ, not of institution."

Taking priests down a notch

With allegations against German priests, more Catholics are recognizing the crisis as a global, not a national, problem. Reformers committed to the church may ultimately change a culture that places priests above parishioners.

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