Retired Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, forced by the Vatican to relinquish his church duties in 1998 amid allegations he sexually abused young boys and men, has died of pneumonia in a hospital near his Austrian home. He was 83.

The famed Pummerin bell in Vienna's St Stephen's Cathedral tolled yesterday to mark Groer's death. He was cardinal of Vienna from 1986 to 1995, when allegations first surfaced that he molested students at an all-male Catholic high school in the early 1970s.

Under pressure from church and lay groups, Groer resigned later that year as head of the Austrian Bishops' conference. In 1998, Pope John Paul II ordered him to relinquish all church duties, and Groer went into months of Vatican-imposed exile near Dresden.

Groer never admitted any guilt, but the scandal was one of the worst ever to rock the Roman Catholic Church in Austria. Eight out of 10 of the country's eight million population are Roman Catholics, but thousands have left the church every year, citing among other things the growing scandals worldwide concerning priests and abuse.

Born in Vienna, Groer moved with his parents to neighbouring Czechoslovakia in 1929 and lived there for a decade, attending Austrian schools. He studied for the priesthood at the Hollabrunn seminary and was ordained in 1942.

Groer, who directed a retreat 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 paedophilia surfaced, Groer had been well-liked by older churchgoers and some younger conservatives, and had sought to reach out to more liberal Catholics.

The scandal began in March 1998, when a news magazine reported charges from a former seminary student that Groer, his religion instructor, had abused him repeatedly in the early 1970s.

Other former students at the all-male 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 when the affair came to light.

Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, who succeeded Groer, was among several top clerics to visit him in the days preceding his death. He urged Austrians to find a way to put the affair behind them and bury any lingering bitterness along with Groer.

Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer; born October 13, 1919, died March 23, 2003.