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Pope's Bishop Pick Criticized Over Katrina Comment

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VIENNA — Pope Benedict XVI's decision to promote a pastor who suggested Hurricane Katrina was provoked by sin in New Orleans was criticized Sunday by Austrian priests and church groups.

The Vatican announced Saturday that the Rev. Gerhard Maria Wagner, 54, would be auxiliary bishop in Linz, the capital of Upper Austria province.

A 2005 report by Kath.Net, a Catholic Austrian news agency, said Wagner had characterized Katrina as divine retribution in a short essay in a parish newsletter.

Wagner wrote that people should ask themselves whether the "noticeable" increase of natural disasters such as Katrina was a result of pollution caused by humans or the result of "spiritual pollution," according to a copy of the essay published Sunday on Kath.Net's Web site.

"This was not the sinking of just any city but that of a people's dream city with the 'best brothels and prettiest prostitutes,'" he wrote.

Wagner told The Associated Press on Sunday he had "never talked about divine retribution" per se, describing his 2005 writing as simply an attempt to lay out the connections between events.

Hans Padinger, spokesman for the Upper Austrian priest's council, told the Oberoesterreichische Rundschau newspaper that he was "not very pleased" with the pick. Church dean Franz Wild said he was "appalled" and that he found it astonishing that someone with such extreme positions could be appointed to a post that was meant to unify.

"I hope it's clear to the church that we're living in the 21st century and that it also has to live there," the newspaper quoted Wild as saying on its Web site.

Franz Guetlbauer, head of a Catholic men's movement, described the appointment as an "extremely conservative sign." The group "We are Church," a group promoting church reform, predicted that the appointment would push people to leave the church.

Wagner said he would "certainly try to reach out" to his critics once he becomes auxiliary bishop on March 22. He also made it clear that he would continue to speak his mind.

"In the future, I will keep expressing myself," he said.

The Vatican infuriated many Jews last month by reinstating a bishop who publicly denied 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust.