BERLIN (AP) — The number of people leaving the Roman Catholic Church in Germany jumped by nearly 50 percent in 2010 as an abuse scandal widened, new data showed Friday.
Some 181,000 people quit their memberships last year, up from 124,000 in 2009, official numbers released by Germany's Roman Catholic Church showed.
Deaths and people turning away from the church heavily outnumbered baptisms, which reached a record low, putting one of the world's wealthiest and most influential Catholic Churches further in decline.
Over the past twenty years, the number of members of Germany's Roman Catholic Church has fallen from 28.3 million to 24.6 million or 30.2 percent of the country's population in 2010, the data showed.
The numbers are easily tracked because members pay a church tax unless they formally leave the congregation — the same reason the declining membership has led to increasing budget shortfalls for the church.
The new figures come ahead of a planned visit by Bavarian-born Pope Benedict XVI on Sept 22-25, when he is scheduled to visit the cities of Freiburg, Erfurt and Berlin where he will deliver a speech to German parliament.
Germans are not required to say why they want to strike their church membership, but many have blamed the reports of sexual and physical abuse of hundreds of children by clergy that surfaced last year.
The diocese that recorded the highest member loss last year was Munich and Freising — the pope's former diocese, which had been hard-hit by the abuse scandal — where 21,600 people alone left the church.
The Archbishop of Munich and Freising, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, late last year begged forgiveness for "everything those working for the church have done" as he presented a report that showed more-than 250 priests and religion teachers sexually or physically abused children in the diocese over the past decades.
"We want to learn from our bad mistakes and misconduct of the past," Marx then vowed.
In its response to the abuse scandal, Germany's Bishops Conference has publicly and repeatedly showed remorse, changed the relevant guidelines for the clergy and offered up to euro5,000 ($6,900) compensation to victims of abuse by clergy or church officials while they were minors, but it gave no total number of victims.
The overall number of German faithful in 2010 fell by a total of 258,000 as deaths and people turning away from the church heavily outnumbered baptisms, which reached a record low of 170,000.
Austria, which taxes church members in a way similar to those in Germany also saw a significant drop in the number of departures. Figures published by the Austrian Bishop's Conference earlier this year said 87,000 Austrian Catholics left in 2010, a 64 percent increase over the 53,000 who formally had their names struck from church registries in 2009.
Melissa Eddy in Berlin contributed to this report.