Significantly fewer Austrians left the Catholic Church in 2006, the Archdiocese of Vienna said on Tuesday in what observers believe is a sign that a mass exodus of believers triggered by priest sex scandals and the nation's unpopular church tax is slowing, the Christian Post reports.
36,645 people formally withdrew from the Church last year, a nearly 18 per cent drop from the 44,609 believers who cancelled their memberships in 2005, the archdiocese said.
The exodus peaked in 2004, when 45,000 Austrians left a church rocked 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, 80 km 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.
However, Msgr Wilfried Kreuth, from the diocese of St Poelten, where church departures slowed by more than 27 per cent last year, called the latest shift "new and encouraging".
The Vienna archdiocese said about 4,600 believers who had left the Church in recent years re-registered as members in 2006, up from 4,009 in the previous year.
Vienna also recorded a 20 per cent 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.
Meanwhile, in France, 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.
In overwhelmingly Catholic Ireland, weekly Mass attendance topped 80 per cent 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 levelling off at approximately half of the population, buoyed by an influx of more than 150,000 mostly Catholic immigrants from Poland.
Catholic Church Exodus in Austria Slows Down (Christian Post, 10/1/07)
LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Catholic Church in Austria (Catholic-Hierarchy)
Catholic Bishops Conference of Austria (German)
Archdiocese of Vienna (German)
Austrian Seminary shut over porn scandal (CathNews, 13/8/04)
Austria probes seminary sex claims (CathNews, 13/7/04)
Vatican diplomat Cardinal Koenig dead at 98 (CathNews, 15/3/04)
11 Jan 2007