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(03-24) 14:21 PST VIENNA, Austria (AP) --
Roman Catholic leaders urged Austrians to forgive and forget Monday after the death of Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, who scandalized the alpine nation by becoming embroiled in allegations that he molested boys in the 1970s.

Groer, 83, died Sunday night of pneumonia at a hospital in St. Poelten, 40 miles west of Vienna, where he was being treated for cancer, the Archdiocese of Vienna announced Monday.

Groer was cardinal of Vienna from 1986 until 1995, when allegations first surfaced that he had sexually molested students at an all-male Catholic boarding school in the early 1970s.

He resigned later in 1995 as head of the Austrian Bishops' Conference under pressure from church and lay leaders. In 1998 -- on the Vatican's orders, but without admitting any guilt -- he relinquished his church duties and went into months of exile in Dresden, Germany.

Although the affair threw Austria's church into turmoil, reaction to Groer's death was surprisingly muted Monday. The famed Pummerin bell in Vienna's St. Stephen's Cathedral tolled for Groer, and Pope John Paul II sent a telegram of condolence saying the cardinal led the archdiocese "with great love for Christ and his church." But Groer's successor, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, urged Austrians to find a way to put the affair behind them and bury any lingering bitterness along with Groer.

"In view of death, the painful questions of the past may be put in God's hands. That applies to Cardinal Groer as well as to any other Christian," Schoenborn said. "The mercy of God is crucial to each Christian at the end of his life," added Cardinal Franz Koenig, who preceded Groer as Austria's top churchman.

Disgust over the church's handling of the scandal has contributed to a recent exodus of disaffected believers. Although 80 percent of Austria's 8 million people identify themselves as Catholics, thousands have been leaving the church every year, citing frustration over the burgeoning worldwide priest-pedophilia scandal as well as over the Vatican's refusal to sanction the ordination of women. "I missed an official apology" for the Groer affair, said Roland Machek, a Vienna-area businessman. "Everything was done to protect the system -- to keep things in the dark and not confess anything. Victims could never let it go like this."

The scandal began in March 1998, when a former seminary student said Groer, his religion instructor, had abused him repeatedly in the early 1970s. The student said he decided to go public after hearing Groer declare that those who abuse children would not "inherit heaven." Other former students at the all-male high school at Hollabrunn, 40 miles north of Vienna, came forward with similar charges. State prosecutors never became involved because the statute of limitations for sexual abuse of a minor had long since expired.

The Vatican drew sharp criticism from many Austrians for taking three years to act. "It was a hard test for all of us," Schoenborn conceded Monday. Born in Vienna on Oct. 13, 1919, Groer moved with his parents to neighboring Czechoslovakia in 1929 and lived there for a decade, attending Austrian schools and holding Czech nationality until 1939. He studied for the priesthood at the Hollabrunn seminary and was ordained in 1942.

Groer, a conservative Benedictine priest who ran a retreat center before he was appointed cardinal, had applied for retirement in 1994, when he turned 75, but John Paul left him in his post. Before the allegations of pedophilia surfaced, Groer had been well-liked by older churchgoers and some younger conservatives, and had sought to reach out to more liberal Catholics. A funeral Mass will be held April 4 at St. Stephen's Cathedral.

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