VIENNA, Austria – An influential Roman Catholic lay organization expressed relief Thursday at the resignation of a bishop who oversaw a seminary where authorities found child pornography, calling it an "important first step" in rebuilding trust in Austria's scandalized church.
We Are the Church (search), which claims to have 500,000 members and has condemned priest pedophilia and other scandals that have rocked the country's religious establishment in the past decade, had pressed for Bishop Kurt Krenn (search) to step down or be fired.
In an interview for Thursday's edition of the newspaper Der Standard, Krenn announced he was resigning immediately as bishop of St. Poelten, the diocese 50 miles west of Vienna where the seminary is located.
"Yes, I have stepped down, and as of now I am the former bishop of St. Poelten," Krenn told the newspaper.
We Are the Church said it was "relieved" at the decision and called it "an important and inevitable first step for renewal in the diocese."
"Many people both inside and outside the diocese can draw a deep breath and finally look with hope toward the future," the organization said in a statement.
Krenn, 68, had angered many people in overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Austria for dismissing as a "childish prank" the downloading of up to 40,000 lurid images — including child pornography — on computers at the seminary.
Krenn told Der Standard he was stepping down voluntarily from the post he has held for 13 years, and not because of pressure from Rome.
"The pope does not force anybody to resign. He asks at the most that someone go," Krenn said. He said he had sent a letter of resignation to Pope John Paul II (search), who has appointed a special investigator to help contain a scandal that has deeply embarrassed his church.
Hubert Feichtlbauer, a former We Are the Church leader, said Krenn's resignation "was certainly not voluntary."
"He's still convinced that he did everything quite properly. He's only quit now because the pope required him to," Feichtlbauer said.
Austrian radio cited unidentified church leaders as saying a search already was under way for a successor to Krenn. The Austrian Bishops Conference declined to comment, saying it would await an official announcement from the Vatican, which was expected Friday.
The pope appointed another Austrian cleric, Bishop Klaus Kueng, as an "apostolic visitor" to investigate the affair. Police have been conducting a separate criminal investigation.
Last month, Kueng shut down the seminary, where trainee priests also had snapped photographs of each other kissing and fondling one another and their older religious instructors. Some of the photos were published, triggering an uproar that church officials disclosed last week has prompted as many as 10,000 believers to formally withdraw from church rolls.
A 27-year-old former seminary student from Poland was convicted last month of possessing and distributing illicit material, a federal offense punishable by up to two years in prison. He received a suspended sentence.
Austria's scandal has dealt another blow to a church already stung by widespread allegations of priest abuse in the United States.
Last year, the Archdiocese of Boston agreed to pay $85 million to settle lawsuits filed by more than 500 victims of clergy sex abuse — a scandal the pope acknowledged earlier this month has "cast a shadow" on his church.