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Life in Austrian Catholic community 'was hell'

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File photo: Jochen Lübke/dpa
11:55 CET+01:00
Defectors from a Catholic community called The Work (Das Werk), which is based in Bregenz in the west of Austria, have spoken out about abuse in the community.

Darren Canning, originally from England, told Austrian state broadcaster ORF that he spent six years as a member of The Work and cried every day. “It was hell, I hoped and prayed that I would die,” he said. 

He left in 2003, with no money and no education, and said he had to start a new life from scratch in England.

The Work was founded in 1938 in Belgium by a woman called Julia Verhaeghe, and was given papal approval in 2001 by Pope John Paul II. Both nuns and priests belong to the community, as well as non-ordained male and female members.

The Work's headquarters are in Bregenz but it also has communities in several European countries, the US and Jerusalem.

'Temptresses'

Canning said that it operated a "system of religious mania, surveillance and oppression that must be stopped". He said contacts with people outside ‘the family’ were discouraged and that all telephone conversations and letters had to be screened by a religious superior.

Canning said that when his grandfather died he wasn’t even allowed to travel to England for his funeral - the reason given was that his grandfather hadn’t been a Christian.  

A spokesman for The Work told the ORF that although these rules had been in place, they had now been abolished - and said that if Canning had insisted, he would have course have been allowed to attend the funeral.

A former priest who was part of The Work has also spoken out, although he wished to remain anonymous.

He said that he knows of cases of abuse in the community and that even in confession priests typically viewed women as “temptresses”. “Even if a woman had been sexually abused, she was seen as being complicit, just because she was a woman,” he said.

A former nun from the community, Doris Wagner, has just published a book called Nicht mehr ich, which tells the story of how as a 19-year-old she was abused by an Austrian priest in Bregenz.  

Originally from Germany, she left the community in 2011 "depressed, virtually penniless and with no social contacts," her publisher wrote in the book’s press release.

She claims she was “controlled, manipulated, sexually abused and pressured”.  She said that her superiors disenfranchised her, used her as cheap domestic labour, failed to protect her from sexual assault, and didn't take care of her when she was sick.

Wagner’s publisher said that she brought charges against the priest in question, both in Germany and Austria, but that he claims that she consented to his sexual advances.

Father Georg Gantioler, one of the current leaders of The Work, told the ORF that he regretted that Wagner "looked back in such a negative way on her years in our community and has failed to mention the many positive things that she experienced".

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However, he did confirm that the order was looking into the allegations and said that a team sent by the Vatican had done an evaluation of the community, the outcome of which is still unknown.

Vorarlberg’s Bishop Benno Elbs has declined to comment on the matter and told the Austrian Press Agency that he was waiting for the results of the Vatican team’s visit, known as an ‘Apostolic Visitation’.

The Work reports directly to the Pope and is not within Bishop Elbs’s jurisdiction.

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