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Bishop criticises press over rebel priest affair

Bishop Koch took part last month in a special Synod in Basel Country to discuss the affair

(Keystone Archive)

Bishop Kurt Koch of Basel has spoken out publicly for the first time about a dispute with a parish priest, accusing the media of half-truths and lies.

In interviews broadcast and published this weekend, Koch hinted at reconciliation with the suspended priest, but demanded of him "discretion and change".

The bishop told Swiss radio on Saturday that he had decided to end his silence to correct the "half-truths, lies and slander" which he said had been published.

Last month Koch revoked the licence of Father Franz Sabo after he continued to defy orders to quit his parish in the town of Röschenz in canton Basel Country.

Sabo has been at loggerheads with the Roman Catholic Church for some time, having accused the local leadership of abusing its power.

In March, Koch announced that the priest would have to leave his parish by the end of September.

But the parish council of Röschenz has continued to support Sabo, rejecting "the dictate of the bishop" and refusing to terminate his contract.

One-sided?

Koch said media reports about the dispute with Sabo had been one-sided in favour of the rebel priest.

He said the conflict arose not because Sabo dared to criticise the Catholic hierarchy, but because of the way he conducted himself. "A person with a mandate from the Catholic Church must show an allegiance to it," said Koch.

He added that he found particularly offensive Sabo's remarks questioning the bishop's belief in God.

Speaking in the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper, Koch accused the press of using the affair as yet another excuse to attack the Catholic Church.

"I wonder how the press would react if this was not about Catholics, but another religion," he said.

Closed doors

He said he was ready to hold talks with the parish council in Röschenz on the condition that any discussions are held behind closed doors.

In a first reaction to Koch's comments, the council said it was unimpressed.

"The diocese still refuses to budge," said Holger Wahl, president of the parish council.

He said the bishopric had hushed up the way it went about an investigation into charges of paedophilia levelled against Sabo. The charges were dropped because of lack of evidence.

Wahl said that while the Catholic Church had withdrawn the charges, it had still labelled the priest as psychologically unstable.

"In a company, that would be considered mobbing," he said.

The parish is currently holding talks with the Catholic Church in Basel Country on how to proceed with Sabo's suspension.

Wahl said Sabo would return from his holiday next month and would celebrate Advent with the parish in his capacity as a priest.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

The Sabo affair is unique in the history of Switzerland's Roman Catholic Church.
The case is legally complicated by the fact that the law covers the appointment of a priest but not his dismissal.
Sacraments given by Sabo continue to be valid despite the removal of his licence.

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