Priest Prohibited signs enflame Austrian passions

The signs depict a priest wearing a long cassock chasing a boy and a girl, framed by a bright red warning circle.

They're dotted along a southern Austrian wilderness path that cuts through a swath of forest owned by Sepp Rothwangl, and warn priests against entering his land in the company of kids. It's the wilderness camp owner's way of dealing with what he says was his own abuse by a clergyman as a child.

The signs might be expected to be nothing more than a one-man protest in a backwoods region far from Austria's centers of power. Yet they are attracting nationwide attention and threaten to reignite passions over pedophile clergy that Austria's Catholic establishment had hoped to have put in the past.

The grizzled 60-year says his actions are meant to "express my protest as a simple citizen" — alleging the Roman Catholic church seems incapable of removing abusive priests from office a year after Austria was swept up in the worldwide sex abuse scandal.

He speaks of "anger boiling over" at what he says is the refusal of predator priests to personally apologize to victims.

"Child Protection Area," declares a message in bold black writing beneath the sign. "Violations will be prosecuted. We are forced to take this action in the interests of unprotected children."

The message says clergy are prohibited from entering the forest in the company of children unless they are accompanied by parents, guardians or other authorized adults.

Rothwangl's signs in his 160 hectare (nearly 400 acre) forest in the hills of Styria province are causing friction in part because they are placed along one of the main trails leading to an ornate 16th century basilica that's a place of pilgrimage for thousands of devout Catholics each year.

But they are generating a wider impact on a church struggling to revive its reputation.

Austria's Roman Catholic hierarchy has moved energetically to appease public anger over the clerical sex abuse scandal. For months after it broke, Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn rarely missed a chance to acknowledge church responsibility.

A panel set up last year to help victims through counseling and other means has dealt with close to 300 cases, and is authorized to dole out cash compensation that can exceed 25,000 euros ($35,000) in severe cases.

Such tactics seemed to have worked, with the number of Austrian Catholics formally turning their backs on the church dropping in recent months after a sharp spike due to the sex abuse scandal.

Now, the solitary protest has thrust priestly sex abuse back into the headlines.

Rothwangl's signs are a top item on state television and in Austria's major dailies. The story has made waves in Germany and France — and the church in this mostly Catholic country of 8.4 million is again suddenly on the defensive.

Spokesman Georg Plank of the Archiocese of Graz, Styria's provincial capital, describes the signs as "a bizarre act which is supposed to generate attention." He says that while the majority of Austrians see church attempts to make amends positively, "there will always be a small group that is not satisfied."

Still, he says the church plans to turn the other cheek, with no legal or other challenges planned.

Others are less charitable, drawing parallels that strike a particularly sensitive nerve in a country that embraced Hitler and his policies.

"It reminds me of a sign put up during the Nazi era saying 'Jews are prohibited from entering the German forest,'" says Gerhard Gross, the head of the Styria chapter of the BZO political party, which holds 16 of national parliament's 186 seats and a mix of far right to centrist positions.

Gross accuses Rothwangl of sparking a "religious war on Christianity" with what he says is a blanket condemnation of all Catholic clergy, and has filed a criminal complaint that accuses him of "incitement" against the church. Gross says he also plans to raise the issue with the federal Justice Minister at the next sitting of parliament next month.

Rothwangl heatedly denies such accusations, sitting with visitors over a hastily thrown-together lunch of smoked trout at a weathered picnic table near the path.

"I refuse to be pushed into the same corner with Nazis," he says. "I just want to draw attention to this grievance."


George Jahn is at

(This version CORRECTS Minor edits, corrects conversion in 8th paragraph)