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Catholic exodus

December 19, 2010

Tens of thousands of German Catholics cancelled their church membership in 2010 - considerably more than in 2009 - taking their automatic tax donations with them. The recent abuse scandals motivated many church-leavers.

An empty Catholic church in Dresden
German churches already have a hard time filling pews, so the latest news is not goodImage: Dr. Silvia Becker

Thousands more German Catholics have left their church this year than in 2009, with the recent string of sexual abuse revelations and other public scandals apparently motivating many people's decisions.

Recent studies by the Frankfurter Rundschau daily and the dpa news agency concur that the country's Catholic churches have lost considerably more members in 2010 than in recent years.

The Bavarian diocese of Augsburg, where Bishop Walter Mixa was forced to stand down in April over physical abuse and embezzlement accusations, recorded some of the worst figures: As of mid-December, 11,351 believers had left the church, compared to 6,953 in 2009.

In the south-western Rottenburg-Stuttgart diocese, 17,169 Catholics had left the church as of mid-November, almost seven thousand more than in 2009.

Trier, Wuerzburg, Osnabrueck and Bamberg all recorded significant increases in departures in 2010, with many disgruntled Catholics apparently seeking new homes with other Christian denominations.

Membership means money

Early indications suggest that the prime mover for people leaving their congregation was the series of sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church, and the church's handling of them.

The scandal over pedophile priests appears to be driving more away from the churchImage: picture-alliance / ANP

In April and May, with the public outcry at its peak, most church leavers cited this as the reason, and particularly high departure numbers in the more scandal-hit diocese of Augsburg, for instance, would seem to suggest a correlation.

"Every single departure is one too many," Wuerzburg Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann said in an interview where he suggested that the pedophile priest problems had a hand in the exodus.

"I hope that some people will come back to us, once the anger at current events subsides, and when people once again focus on all the good things the church does every day," he added.

Germany's Catholic Church has been taking steps to try to prevent future abuse cases and shed light on past ones in recent months, but critics argue that the response has been slow and that Catholic leaders still intend to prevent past perpetrators from ever facing justice.

Meanwhile, some Catholic leaders are not convinced that the declining size of the German flock in 2010 is linked to the negative headlines that dominated the year.

"As a rule, an official departure from the church is the culmination of a longer process of estrangement," Osnabrueck Bishop Hermann Haarmann said.

In Germany, officially becoming a member of a religion has financial significance, not just a symbolic one.

German citizens who are members of a religious group officially recognized by the government in Berlin automatically pay a "church tax" deducted from their monthly paychecks.

Author: Mark Hallam (dpa, AFP)
Editor: Kyle James