Austria — 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…
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…
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