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Case of rebel priest exposes Church divisions

Franz Sabo celebrated Mass in Röschenz on October 1, in defiance of his bishop's ban

(Keystone)

An escalating row over the future of a parish priest has put the Catholic Church in Switzerland under pressure to bring its flock into line.

Father Franz Sabo faces a range of sanctions, including possible excommunication, for continuing to defy orders from the local bishop to quit his parish.

In a letter sent at the end of last week, Bishop Kurt Koch of Basel informed the outspoken priest that his licence had been removed and threatened him with "serious consequences" if he ignored the ban.

Sabo's parish council could also face disciplinary measures for allowing the priest to lead services.

In defiance of the ban, Sabo celebrated Mass and baptised a child in his parish of Röschenz on Sunday.

The parish council has stood behind the popular priest, rejecting "the dictate of the bishop" and refusing to terminate his contract.

A member of the parish council, Bernard Cueni, said Sabo continued to enjoy the congregation's trust and was inundated with requests to conduct weddings and baptisms.

Not a democracy

But British commentator on church affairs, Felix Corley, told swissinfo the Catholic Church was not a democracy, and it was not the place of parishioners to make decisions about who should be their priest.

"The reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s increased the role of the laity but did not give them any formal say in the nomination and choice of the parish priest," he said.

Despite that, there was a tradition in southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland of lay involvement in Church affairs and decision-making, which Church leaders had had to take account of, he said.

Sabo has been a thorn in his superior's flesh for a long time, after he accused the local Church leadership of abusing its power.

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

Corley said Koch had tried the path of negotiation, but had eventually had no alternative but to remove the controversial priest's licence.

"I think the main concern of the Church would be to bring this issue to a close and prevent it being dragged through the media.

That's very difficult when you have a high-profile priest who knows how to play the media and a bishop who can be portrayed as stodgy, rigid and unbending to popular pressure."

Excommunication threat

Church law expert Erwin Tanner told the Basler Zeitung the bishop had no executive power to prevent Sabo from carrying out his priestly duties but by threatening him with excommunication could force him to fall into line.

The parish council, which also comes under the bishop's jurisdiction, could also face excommunication as a last resort, Tanner said. A less severe sanction would be a fine, in the form of a payment to a charitable organisation.

The Catholic Church in canton Basel Country is to hold a special synod at the end of the month to review the case.

One option still on the table is that Sabo returns to the archbishopric of Bamberg, Germany, where he was ordained. The priest has been on loan to the bishopric of Basel since 1992.

But Sabo has vowed to continue in Röschenz for as long as his parishioners want him.

According to Corley, Sabo and his congregation will have to decide what kind of church they want to belong to.

"In effect, he has become a Protestant in the way he thinks the Catholic Church should be run.

"If he were to leave and set up his own religious congregation, it would be more in the nature of a Protestant community and the people would be following him rather than a denomination that they have nominally belonged to up until now," he added.

swissinfo, Morven McLean

Key facts

The Roman Catholic Church has a hierarchical structure. Headed by the Pope, ordained clergy are divided into the orders of bishops, priests and deacons.
Canon law is the body of laws and regulations governing the Church and its members.
There are six dioceses in Switzerland: Basel, Chur, Lausanne, Geneva and Fribourg, Lugano, St Gallen and Sion.

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