Belgian Priest Seeking Justice For Sex Abuse Victims

Barron's [New York NY]

December 4, 2023

By Matthieu Demeestere, Agence France-Presse

Since the broadcast of a shocking documentary about abuse in the Belgian Catholic Church, which awakened buried traumas, former priest Rik Deville has been overwhelmed by heart-breaking stories.

One victim, an 86-year-old man, called Deville from his car where he had locked himself, in floods of tears. He finally told someone of the horrific abuse he suffered that even his nearest and dearest didn’t know.

Deville devotes his life to providing support to victims of sexual abuse in the Church, carefully reading each victim’s story and taking their many phone calls.

“Almost every day, a new person confides in me for the first time what they have experienced,” the 79-year-old told AFP at his home in Gammerages, central Belgium.

Deville, who was a parish priest between 1969 and 2009, has never shied away from controversy, even while he was a priest.

In 1992, he published a vitriolic book about the Vatican’s omnipotence entitled “The Last Dictatorship”, which also encouraged dozens of people to come forward with stories about criminal acts hushed up by the Belgian Catholic Church.

Some 30 years later, he has been thrust into the spotlight again after appearing in the documentary.

Around 20 victims — mostly men abused when they were children in Church institutions — recounted on camera the rapes and assaults they suffered as well as the long-term impact of the horrors they faced.

The documentary gave other victims the courage to come forward.

“We thought 1,400 complaints (over three decades) was already a lot, but new ones are being added,” Deville said.

– Losing his hope –

The strong emotions triggered by “Forgotten By God,” broadcast on the Flemish VRT channel, pushed the federal parliament to establish a committee to investigate.

Justice for sexual abuse crimes is tricky to obtain, often because survivors come forward after the statute of limitations has expired or the perpetrator has died.

Deville, who is a key witness for the parliamentary committee, hopes this focus on past crimes will push the Church to recognise the “culture of abuse” that it allowed to develop over the years in Belgium.

This admission would acknowledge the victims’ suffering, but Deville is not hopeful.

“I have lost some faith in the leaders of our church; I no longer believe that they will do anything to change things,” he said.

Since the documentary, the bishops of Belgium and the federal prosecutor’s office have vehemently denied failing to support victims.

The Belgian Bishops’ Conference, representing the clergy, pointed to action taken in 2012 in the wake of a scandal involving one of its own.

It launched “points of contact” designed to make it easier to report abuse.

They received 50 new complaints between July 2022 and June 2023, which led to some victims receiving between 2,500 to 25,000 euros ($2,700 to 27,000) depending on the gravity of the complaints.

The conference insisted seven cases were shared with prosecutors as it was unclear whether the perpetrators were “still alive and could present a risk.”

Deville was dismissive of the compensation.

“Financial reparations is actually a symbolic gesture, as if to say ‘here’s some money, now shut up’,” he added.