By: Randy Engel
[The following article was originally published in the September issue of The Catholic Inquisitor. With the USCCB meeting presently taking place in Baltimore, along with news that Rome has acted to prevent the bishops’ vote on the proposed Standards of Episcopal Conduct – and this even as the clerical homo-predator scandal dominates Catholic and secular news – it is well worth either reading for the first time or revisiting. – ED.]
It’s been more than 23 years since the Cardinal Hans Groër, O.S.Bsex abuse scandal erupted in Vienna, Austria.
Recently, while researching the Cardinal McCarrick case, I had occasion to go back over my notes on this high-level Church scandal that took place in Austria, and it struck me how little accurate information and follow-up details on clerical abuse issued by Catholic media sources actually reaches Catholics in the pews.
It appears that official Catholic news sources including Vatican Information Service, and Catholic News Services, an organ of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, do everything possible to obfuscate and minimize the real nature and consequences of these sexually-related scandals in the Church today – or perhaps, better stated, in the Counterfeit Church that passes for the true Roman Catholic Church today.
So, I decided to do a follow-up article to see what, if anything, the reader remembers about the accusations against Cardinal Groër, and how those memories measure up to the unreported facts which eventually came to light many months or years later.
After you read this scenario regarding Cardinal Groër, please ask yourself, “Did the Catholic media, at the time, provide me with sufficient information that would permit me, as a faithful Catholic, to make a conscious and accurate evaluation and understanding of this unforgettable scandal?” If the answer is “no,” then the next question is “why not?”
Also, ask yourself if the Vatican’s dealings with the case of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick and his minions will be any better.
Early Revelations About the Groër Case
The first time that most American Catholics heard about Cardinal Hans Groër, Archbishop of Vienna, was on September 14, 1995, when he resigned his post following allegations of pederasty (the sexual molestation of adolescent boys), brought by one of Groër’sformer student. Afterwards,John Paul II arranged for Groër to be sent to his old Benedictine monastery in Maria Roggendorf where the cardinal was made prior, until new accusations of past criminal deeds reached the pope’s ears.
The second time that Groër made American headlines was on April 14, 1998, when Pope John Paul II finally forced Groërto relinquish all ecclesiastical duties and privileges as an archbishop and cardinal-priest, although he kept his title as Archbishop Emeritus of Vienna.
Background on Cardinal Groër
Included in the Vatican announcements of Groër’s dramatic fall from grace were some generic biographical notes on the cardinal.
Groër was born on October 13, 1919 in Vienna to SudetenGerman parents. The family later moved to Czechoslovakia where they set up residence for a decade and then returned to their homeland. Groërreceived his seminary training in Hollabrunn and Vienna and was ordained for the diocesan priesthood on April 12, 1942. He then served as a military chaplain in Petronell and Bad Vöslau until 1946 when he became Prefect of Studies at the Minor Seminary of Hollabrunn in Lower Austria. He obtained a doctorate in theology in 1949. Later he became a Professor of Religion at the Hollabrunn Seminary.
According to Groër, it was in the early 1950s that hedeveloped a special interest in Marian devotions and devoted himself to the restoration of the pilgrimages to the shrine of Our Lady of Roggendorf. In 1980, That same years he was named Spiritual Director of the Legion of Mary (Legio Mariens) in Austria.
Subsequent testimony from Groër’s early victims support the charge that during this same time period that he reported receiving a message from Our Lady and was conducting pilgrimages to the popular shrine, the priest was routinely molesting young members of the Legio.
In 1974, Groër made a significant career change from diocesan priest to monk. In retrospect, the change may not have been entirely voluntary.
That year, he joined the Benedictine monastic community of St. Joseph’s Priory located in the historic pilgrimage center of Maria Roggendorf in Hollabrunn. He entered the novitiate at Göttweig monastery in 1976and took his solemn vows as a Benedictine monk on September 8, 1980.
To the surprise of many, the obscure monk was appointed the 15thArchbishop of Vienna by Pope John Paul II on July 15, 1986 and made Cardinal-Priestof Santi Gioacchino ed Anna al Tuscolano two years later at the consistory of June 28, 1988.
A Note on the Austrian Hierarchy
Although demographically small with a total population of about eight million, Austria has always played a significant role in the history of Europe and the Roman Catholic Church. Its hierarchy is composed of two archbishops, one for the Archdiocese of Vienna, and the other for the Archdiocese of Salzburg, although, for all practical purposes, the Archbishop of Vienna is the ruling prelate; seven bishops for the Dioceses of Eisenstadt, Linz, Sankt Polten, Graz-Sckau, Gurk, Feldkirch and Innsbruck; the Abbot of the Cistercian Territorial Abbey of Wettingen-Mehrerau and the Bishop of the Military Ordinariate of Austria.
In recent years, the Catholic population of Austria has been hemorrhaging from 89% in 1961 to 58% in 2017 due, in part, to migration and the increased secularization of Austrian society, and more recently, to the large numbers of clerical sexual abuse cases –837 in 2010 alone –about 75% of which involved male homosexual clerics and at least two high-ranking prelates including Hans Groërand Archabbot George Becker, OSB, of St. Peter’s Archabbey in Salzburg, the oldest monastery in the German-speaking world.
However, what makes the story of Cardinal Groër so unique in Church annals is not only the four decades-long duration of his predatory crimes, and the incredible number of young boys he sexually molested, but also the role played by Pope John Paul II, and Cardinal Josef Ratzinger as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and later as Pope Benedict XVI, in the continuing rise of Groër up the Vatican’s hierarchal ladder to the office of Cardinal, despite Groër’s early predator track record.
Let’s begin with a look at that record.
Groër Case Breaks in 1995 in Profil
On March 27, 1995, the weekly Austrian magazine, Profil, published an interview with Josef Hartmann, 37, who alleged that when he was a student at Hollabrunn junior seminary, Father Groër, one of his seminary teachers,had sex with him repeatedly for four years, from 1972 to 1976.
Hartmann’s statement was backed up by the testimony of Rev. Udo Fischer, who had attended the same boys’ school in the 1960s and early 1970s. Fischer stated that he had been molested by Cardinal Groër when they worked together on a youth movement devoted to the Virgin Mary in the early 1970s, and that he had observed him acting inappropriately with others who were not willing to come forward. Fischer noted that referred to the young boys he surrounded himself with as “little angels.”
To his credit, in 1985, Fischer reported Groër’s criminal activities to his abbot, Fr. Clemens Lashofer, OSB, at Göttweig Abbey. Three years earlier, Lashofer had become the Abbot President of the Australian Congregation of Benedictines, so he was in a position of considerable power and influence. But Fischer’s accusations including his personal testimony that he himself was sexually abused by Groër apparently fell upon deaf ears. Lashofer remained silent.
It was not until one year later, when the Vatican announced Groër’s appointment as archbishop of Vienna that the angry Fischer re-contacted with Abbot Lashofer and asked him why he had not denounced Groër to the proper ecclesiastical authorities when he learned that Groër’s name was being put forth as a candidate for the office of archbishop. The abbot, who died in 2009, responded that the papal nuncio had never questioned him regarding Groër’s suitability as archbishop before his selection. To which Udo made the profound observation that, “If they really did not ask him, they did not want to know.” Who the “they” were will be discussed later in this article.
The Vienna branch of the Legion of Mary (Legio Mariens) was formed on February 21, 1949. A former member of the Legio for ten years, recalls that he witnessed Groër, grabbing hold of boys’ genitals, but he did not interpret the action as sexual abuse at the time. After all, Groër had enjoyed a visitation by Our Lady and had a reputation for “sanctity!”
Similar recollections were made by many of Groër other victims who recounted how the priest/monk would ask them to come to his room for confession, demand they take off their clothes and then abuse them. Others reported the priest/monk would fondle their genitals in the shower under the guise of conducting a medical exam.
At the time that these revelations were being made public, I believe it would be fair to state that few Austrian Catholics believed that Groër really committed these crimes against seminarians and monks and other young boys and young men with whom he came in contact. The scales did not begin to fall from their collective eyes until 1998 with the publication of Hubertus Czernin’s exposé on the Groër scandal.
Das Buch Groer: Eine Kirchenchronik Lights the Fire
On January 1, 1998, Das Buch Groër: Eine Kirchenchronik (The Book Groer: A Church Chronicle) by Hubertus Czernin hit the streets of Vienna. It forever put to rest any argument that Groër was innocent of the charges of sexual abuse made again him.
Born on January 17, 1956, into an aristocratic family in Vienna, Czernin studied art history at the University, but later decided to become a journalist and investigative reporter. Czernin started at the bottom of the ladder at Profil, and eventually worked his way up to editor.
The startling conclusion of Czernin’s investigation was that Groër had sex with over 2,000 young men, mostly seminarians and monks, starting in the 1950s and ending in the 1990s. That’s no misprint. The figure put forth by Czernin was over 2,000, although the actual figures remain unknown. Czernindied on June 10, 2006 at age of 50, three years after the 83-year-old Groër went to meet his Maker. Although Czernin had the satisfaction of living long enough to see Groër removed from office, the Viennese prelate never faced an ecclesiastical court, much less a criminal trial in a secular court.
Pope John Paul II Acting Poorly
Following the initial Profil pederasty exposéon Groër in late March 1995 by journalist and Hollabrunn alumnus, Josef Votzi, and the cardinal’s subsequent resignation as Archbishop of Vienna in September 1995 and his installment as Prior at the Benedictine monastery in Maria Roggendorf, what went largely unreported was a lengthy letter sent by Pope John Paul II to all the Austrian bishops in which he defended Groër against the “unjust accusations” and attacks against his “honorableness.” That the pope would write such a communication without even having ordered a thorough investigation of the charges and at a time when Groër’s penchant for young monks and seminarians was an “open secret” in the Vienna Archdiocese, appears to this writer to be beyond the pale.
There were Austrian clerics including the new President of the Austrian Catholic Conference, and as well as victim survivors, who called for such a Vatican investigation, but John Paul II wasn’t listening. Groër was removed from his post and sent out of sight to the Benedictine monastery of Maria Roggendorf until the heat was off. He was given the office of Prior. In 1996, the cardinal was temporarily moved to another Benedictine monastery in Germany, but at some point, he quietly returned to Roggendorf. Life was still pretty good.
Pope John Paul II appointed Hans Groër Archbishop of Vienna in 1986, and made him a Cardinal on June 28, 1988
Pope Institutes a Formal Investigation
Unfortunately for Groër, the accusations against him kept rolling in, forcing the pope’s hand on the matter. Three years later, John Paul II’s was forced to institute an official investigation into the scandal.
On February 12, 1998, the Vatican announced the appointment of the American Benedictine Abbot Primate, Marcel Rooney, OSB, of Madison Wisconsin to head the investigation. The six-day visitation to the Roggendorf monastery where Groër was now living was completed on March 6, 1998. To his credit, Rooney spoke in private with anyone who had something to contribute to the investigation including priests, monks, novices and seminarians.
Among the Benedictine clergy of Göttweig Abbey who Rooney interviewed was Prior Gottfried Schatz, an early whistle blower againstGroër. Schatz left the monastery the same year as the Rooney Visitation and was laicized one year later.
On April 17, 1998, three days after Groërgave up his office and all its duties, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Groër’s successor to the Archdiocese of Vienna, begged John Paul II to put an end to the Austrian bishops’ misery over the Groër scandal. Schönborn issued a public apology to all those “wronged” by Groër, although neither the Vatican nor the cardinal himself ever admitted his guilt flat out.
Groër Exiled to East Germany
As is par for the course, the Rooney report to Pope John Paul II and all the Austrian bishops was never made public.
However, you can be sure that when the last dot was placed on the last sentence of the Rooney investigative report on Groër’s crimes, the results could be summarized quite succinctly – Groër had made homosexual advances to almost every young seminarian and monk he had come in contact with over his long clerical career.
Thus, in the spring of 1998, the “gravely ill” Groër was conveniently shipped out of the country for six months to a convent in Goppeln, East Germany, despite the fact, that some of Groër’s very early victims were young girls.
Although the Vatican had instructed Groër to keep a low profile, he continued to entertain a number of high-level churchmen.
Among Groër’s many guests at Goppeln, was Cardinal Joachim Meisner, Archbishop of Cologne, Germany. During Meisner’s visit of September 8, 1998, Groër gave Meisner the episcopal ring of Saint Francis de Sales, a gift which Groër had received from the Salesian nuns (Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary) of Rennweg in Vienna as a token of their “unbroken confidence” in him. According to Meisner, these were dark days for the “exiled” cardinal who “sank into loneliness and contempt.”
Later in the fall of 1998, Groër returned to Austria and quietly resettled in his old Benedictine monastic community at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Sankt Polten, his “grave illness” having been cured merely by a short lapse of time. Here he lived out the last years of his life.
Death Becomes the Archbishop
Early in the morning of March 24, 2003, Cardinal Groër died of pneumonia at St. Poelten Hospital near Vienna where he was being treated for cancer. He was 83 years old.
In a telegram of condolence to the Archdiocese of Vienna, John Paul II, also aged 83, and in the last stages of Parkinson’s disease, is reported to have stated that Groër had served “with great love for Christ and his Church” and that he prayed that the cardinal would be “granted the eternal reward that the Lord himself promised to his faithful servants.”
Cardinal Schönborn, who presided over the Requiem Mass at St. Stephen’s Cathedral for Cardinal Groër on April 4, 2003, was a tad more sedate in his comments. “In view of death, the painful questions of the past may be put in God’s hands. That applies to Cardinal Groër as well as to any other Christian,” he said. Schönborn was one of many high-ranking Austrian prelates who had visited the cardinal before his death.
Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër was buried in the cemetery of Mariendfeld Abbey, a Cistercian women’s monastery taken over by the Benedictines in 2004.
Cardinal Meisner Beatifies Cardinal Groër
On April 5, 2003, Groër’s close friend Cardinal Joachim Meisner gave the sermon at another Requiem Mass held in Maria Roggendorf. Luckily, the text of Meisner’s eulogy has been preserved online as its contents would not likely be otherwise believed.
Originally, I was going to quote only sections of Meisner’s sermon, but on second thought I believe it will make a deeper impression on the reader if the eulogy is presented in its entirety.
Dear Brethren and Sisters,
Hans Hermann Cardinal Groër’s walk along the roads of this world was completed when he passed away to God, our Father. Like a tired pilgrim Cardinal Groër was allowed to return to God the Father’s house after a pilgrimage of almost 84 years. When a child is born he cries a lot, but his fellowmen, his parents and relatives are happy about the birth of a new human being. At the end of one’s life, when the human being dies, it should be the other way around.
For he who leaves to meet his Father should rejoice. His fellow human beings, however, should be sad and shed tears, because a faithful man has left them. This happened to Mary. If you how ever stood in front of the wonderful altar of the Holy Virgin by Veit Stoss in the Church of Our Lady in Cracow, you will not be able to forget the Easter smile on Mary’s face, as she falls dying into the arms of the weeping Apostles.
Many of us feel like this when we think of our late fellow priest and Cardinal, Hans Hermann Groër. His last decade of life was over-shadowed by the dark cloud, under which many suffered with him. Cardinal Groër was destined to follow our Lord along His Stations of the Cross, as Simon of Cyrene had done. He was steeped in the Lord’s bitter Passion, which, however, protected him from bitterness. Along those Stations of the Cross he knew himself completely bound with Mary, the Lord’s Mother, who had also been pierced by the sword of pain. Because of this he became a qualified companion in suffering for many people under the Cross.
So many people from far and near came to him to ask for guidance for their lives. Especially the hard pressed and the burdened, the despised and the crucified found in him a Christian and a brother who was at their side and showed them their way to the future by virtue of his spiritual authority. Maybe this was the reason why Cardinal Groër became one of Austria’s much sought after confessors, even until shortly before his death. Was this not the true believers’ testimony, with their Feet and hearts, for the priest and bishop Hans Hermann Groër? The Bible tells us, Blessed are the dead, who die in the Lord …; for their Works follow them.(Apoc. 14:13)
We need not say many words at Cardinal Groër’s casket in Maria Roggendorf. The facts speak for themselves: The pilgrimage basilica in its beauty, the Benedictine priory at the same place, the Cistercian nuns’ abbey, Marienfeld, in the neighborhood: They would not exist without Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër. They have become places that help people to experience a bit of heaven on earth and earth to be a bit more inhabitable. From Maria Roggendorf a monthly pilgrimage movement spread all over Europe and beyond, so that believers gather at 600 places month after month to be led to Christ by Mary according to her piece of advice, Whatever he shall say to you, do ye. (Jn 2:5)
At his casket we have indeed more reason to give thanks than to lament. Cardinal Groër was not a man with a strong constitution or thick skin; rather he was easily wounded and overly sensitive. Therefore, he was deeply wounded, even stigmatized by the incidents during his last years as Archbishop of Vienna. Since that time, he was as though branded, wounded and even stigmatized. And when Peter writes in his first letter, … by whose stripes you were healed (1 Peter 2:24), this may be the reason that Cardinal Groër was sought again and again as a pastor, confessor and spiritual director. A man who had recovered the sense of his life after meeting Cardinal Groër told me that he had always left him as a better man than he had been before.
In the days when the dark cloud gathered over his life and he sank into loneliness and contempt, the Salesian nuns of Rennweg in Vienna came to him and brought him St. Francis de Sales’ episcopal ring as a sign of their unbroken confidence in him. I know how much he was strengthened, consoled and moved by this sign of sympathy, compassion and sharing of his sufferings. Months later he gave me St. Francis de Sales’ ring. He wanted to thank me for accompanying him along his path under the dark cloud. I was deeply embarrassed and affected by that, because I did not have the feeling of having accompanied him intensely enough.
Today I am taking back the late Cardinal’s ring as a sign of gratitude for his faithfulness under the Cross of the Lord. From now on this ring shall belong to Our Lady of Roggendorf. It is the ring of St. Francis de Sales and of the late Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër. Like Mary, his heart was pierced by the sword of sorrow. As Mary did, so do we hope and request for him the joy of final communion with Christ who died and rose again from the dead. Not the crown, but the ring of faithfulness shall serve as a sign of this. Amen. [April 5, 2003]
What can one possibly say?
Dennis Coday, “A cardinal is accused: the Groer case,” National Catholic Reporter,” April 4, 2014, at https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/cardinal-accused-groer-case.
“Hubertus Czernin -Austrian Journalist Had Role in Return of Art Seized by Nazis,” Elisabeth Penz and Jon Thurber, Los Angeles Times, June 15, 2006| at http://articles.latimes.com/2006/jun/15/local/me-czernin15.
“’Exile’ for disgraced Austrian cardinal,” BBC News, April 14, 1998 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/78503.stm.
“Over 800 complaints to Austrian Catholic Church sexual abuse commission,” Sylvia Westall, Reuters, April 13,2011 at http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld/2011/04/13/over-800-complaints-to-austrian-catholic-church-sexual-abuse-commission/
Cardinal Joachim Meisner, “Consecrated to God,”’at http://www.gottgeweiht.at/gg402predigtkardinalmeisnerengl.htm.