A papal emissary investigating suspected homosexuality and child pornography among student priests shut down the Austrian seminary at the center of the scandal Thursday, saying his probe had resulted in "very painful" revelations of sexual misconduct.
The move by Austrian Bishop Klaus Kueng came three weeks after Pope John Paul II assigned him to look into allegations that seminarians were hoarding child pornography and had taken photographs showing them fondling each other.
"A new beginning is necessary," Kueng told reporters in remarks broadcast on state-run ORF television. "I am closing the seminary right away."
Kueng later qualified his remarks, saying the closure would be "temporary." But he gave no indication of how long the baroque seminary in the city of St. Poelten, 50 miles west of Vienna, which had trained young men for the Catholic priesthood for more than 200 years, would remain shuttered. And he did not elaborate on what his investigation had revealed, beyond saying that it appeared that "active homosexual relationships took shape."
The Vatican inspector had promised a "brisk investigation" and pledged to do whatever it took to restore credibility to the church in Austria.
Since pornographic images were first discovered late last year, authorities have found about 40,000 photos and numerous videos, including some featuring child pornography, on computers at the seminary. Other photographs show students kissing and fondling each other and their older religious instructors.
Publication of some of the photos in Austrian news media triggered a public uproar that prompted the pope to dispatch Kueng as what the church calls an "apostolic visitor" to contain the scandal. The Vatican appoints such a figure when it receives allegations of "grave irregularities" at a diocesan institution.
Two of the institution's 36 students left the seminary this summer. Those who want to continue studying for the priesthood will have to undergo a fresh screening process, Kueng said.
Prosecutors investigating the child pornography aspect of the case have charged a 27-year-old former seminary student from Poland with possessing and distributing illicit material, a federal offense punishable by up to two years in prison. He goes on trial Friday.
The bishop of St. Poelten, Kurt Krenn, whose diocese was visited by the pope in 1998, has refused to resign despite mounting pressure. The church ordered him to stop speaking to reporters after he described the photos of priests kissing and fondling as "childish pranks" and made other comments playing down the affair.
Kueng, of Feldkirch, Austria, is a member of Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic organization. He said the decision to close the seminary was made with the full knowledge of the Vatican and Krenn.
In 1998, an American Benedictine monk was sent as an apostolic visitor to a monastery in Austria where Hans Hermann Groer, Austria's cardinal at the time, had been accused of sexually molesting young boys decades earlier.
The American's findings were never made public. Groer later resigned and left Austria. Krenn was criticized at the time for insisting that Groer was innocent.