Belgian bishops face bruising questions at abuse inquiry

The Tablet [Market Harborough, England]

March 1, 2024

By Tom Heneghan

Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp said he was tired of hearing criticism of the Church when it had introduced more reform than other public bodies.

Senior Belgian bishops faced a hostile reception at a national commission on abuse in the Church, where federal deputies expressed disbelief at their apologies.

The meeting became so tense that the Bishop of Antwerp Johan Bonny riposted he was tired of hearing so much criticism of the Church when it had introduced far more reforms than public entities.

The session on 23 February was the latest stage in a sharpening debate about abuse since the television mini-series Gotvergeten (“Forgotten by God”) last September shone a critical light on years of cover-ups.

Bishop Bonny joined the Archbishop of Brussels Luc Terlinden and other prelates to apologise once again for the abuse and tried to explain how the Church responded to the scandal since it broke in 2010.

“We heard that 12, 13 years ago,” responded one deputy who was part of an earlier inquiry formed after the Bishop of Ghent Roger Vangheluwe admitted to abusing two nephews.

When the Bishop of Limburg Patrick Hoogmartens said he had learned much from meeting victims, another deputy asked: “Did you really need a learning process to find sexual abuse terrible?”

A third said the bishops always found excuses such as “I couldn’t do anything about it, it wasn’t my diocese, it was the Pope’s [responsibility], etc.”

When the former Bishop of Ghent Luc Van Looy denied discreetly moving predator priests, another deputy challenged him: “Then what did you do with paedo-priest Luk Delft?”

After abusing in Belgium, Delft was sent to the Central African Republic, where he was accused of raping a minor.

Van Looy said that was a matter for Delft’s Salesian order, a distinction the deputies did not seem to understand.

“If this parliament wants to remain a credible partner for us – and we hope it does – then it must also investigate where it itself has fallen short in the follow-up to the previous committee,” Bonny said.

He suggested the Church’s central information office for abuse victims should provide a model for an office for all Belgium’s abuse victims, where they could find advice and help. The Church was ready to help finance this, he said.

Bonny later told Flemish television he wanted an office in Antwerp where all abuse victims could come for help. He said he had written to Pope Francis in September asking to step down from his diocesan responsibilities in Antwerp to dedicate his time to dealing with abuse victims.

“I am ready to do anything, even if it means that I have to put aside my task in Antwerp to work for the victims,” he said. The Pope has not responded to his request.