Belgium’s Catholic Church Struggles to Regain Trust

By Nicholas Kulish
The New York Times
June 2, 2010

Peter Adriaenssens, right, leader of a Belgian sexual abuse panel, was among those who took part in a news conference in April to discuss the resignation of a bishop who had molested a boy.

LEUVEN, Belgium — It may be no accident that the Roman Catholic Church in Belgium is taking a more aggressive response to child abuse by priests.

Belgians became highly attuned to the issue of sexual abuse as a result of a heinous case of child molestation and murder that led to nationwide protests more than a decade ago. That case prompted a federal blue-ribbon panel to confront the wave of abuse reports that followed, including against members of the clergy.

As a result, the church established an independent commission in 2000 to deal with charges against priests. But it quickly slipped into irrelevance, dealing with just 33 cases in 10 years and often finding itself stonewalled by a lack of cooperation from the church. This year, amid a growing sexual abuse scandal across Europe, the commission has been revived, with a leading expert on child abuse at its helm and a new atmosphere of possibility as the Catholic Church works to regain trust here.

But the church is struggling in that effort, as this traditionally Catholic society is turning more secular and as attitudes are hardening toward perceived cover-ups over the years. And with the new commission prying loose a flood of unreported sexual abuse cases, the church faces the risk that trust will be damaged even further as the details come to light.

“They’re always talking about being open,” said Linda Opdebeeck, 46, who was sexually abused by a brother of the Marist order at her Catholic school in Oudergem for several years starting when she was 13. “Can they be open? I don’t know. I don’t believe in it now.”

But Ms. Opdebeeck, who never approached the commission in the 10 years under its previous leader, said the new president, Peter Adriaenssens, a child psychiatrist, was the right man for the job. She took the step of writing a letter to the commission, one of more than 400 claims that have emerged in recent weeks.

“The church didn’t restore the confidence of the people because it couldn’t or didn’t want to uncover the past,” said Lieven Sioen, who has written about the commission for the Belgian newspaper De Standaard. “But Professor Adriaenssens is the big specialist in child abuse, and people very much have confidence in him.”

Mr. Adriaenssens is professor of child psychiatry at the Catholic University of Leuven and head of the clinical department of child psychiatry at the university hospital. He is also director of Leuven’s state-financed Confidential Center for Child Abuse and Neglect.

He was one of the original experts on the blue-ribbon panel that called for the creation of the commission in the aftermath of the Marc Dutroux case.

Mr. Dutroux was arrested in 1996 and charged with kidnapping, torturing and sexually abusing six young girls, four of whom died. In 2004, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

In a recent interview, Mr. Adriaenssens said his work at that time had helped him establish important relationships, including with the country’s current justice minister, that would help the new commission immensely.

But the commission’s rocky first decade starkly illustrates how the success or failure of such an undertaking rests on the commitment of all sides to a thorough process. The commission’s former president has recently complained in the Belgian media that priests and their superiors often refused to cooperate with inquiries back then.

“That commission had a tough job,” said Mr. Adriaenssens, who took over as president of the commission in January. “In certain files there was a very clear conclusion of the commission, and it was not followed by the bishops. Very often these pioneer stories are full of frustration. But in the long term, it was effective because today we can take the fruits of that.”

The widening abuse scandal within the church in neighboring Germany and the Netherlands probably encouraged the reporting of 20 new cases here in the first four months of 2010. But the dam broke when the bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, announced that he would step down on April 23 because he had molested a boy.

Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard of Mechelen-Brussels said at the news conference that day that the church in Belgium would “turn over a leaf from a not-very-distant past when such matters would pass in silence or be concealed.”

Mr. Adriaenssens said Archbishop Leonard’s words had a significant effect. “Suddenly, on television, they heard their boss, the archbishop, say, ‘I will not cover anymore,’ ” Mr. Adriaenssens said. “In these first cases I’m impressed by the fact that a large majority, nearly all these priests, largely are cooperative because they realize the pressure of public opinion, the pressure of the bishops.”

Mr. Adriaenssens said he was basing the work of the commission on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was led by Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu. The commissioners have already had 60 sessions with victims, perpetrators or both, and hope to complete their work swiftly, in just four months, and issue a comprehensive report.

“We see at this moment that most of these people tell us stories that are much, much more severe than what were aware of because we have one or two of their victims and they tell us about 20,” Mr. Adriaenssens said.

The Rev. Rik Deville, 66, a retired priest in Halle, outside Brussels, began assembling abuse cases in 1992 and has the manila folders filled with more than 300 of them on the dining room table in his home. Known as something of a gadfly within the Belgian church, he did not get along with the previous head of the commission, but he praised Mr. Adriaenssens, whom he has met with twice.

“For me, it was the first time that I could speak of it with a delegation from the church that I believe in the conversation,” Father Deville said.

But he also questioned the scope of the commission, in that the president’s stated focus is healing and transparency, with the victim compensation left to the courts. “He shall not deal with money, and that is very good for the bishops,” Father Deville said.

It also remains unclear how dedicated the church really is to transparency, and how damaging a comprehensive accounting could be. Father Deville said that he told Cardinal Godfried Danneels, Archbishop Leonard’s predecessor, who stepped down in January, about the abuse allegations against Bishop Vangheluwe more than a decade ago.

Mr. Adriaenssens said that the church had shown a commitment to uncovering the truth but that he had told church officials that he would resign if that commitment faded. “They made very clear that they will follow without discussion the advice of the commission,” he said.

“But of course when we send our conclusion to Rome in those cases where we think that the responses have to be more severe, there, we depend on what Rome says,” Mr. Adriaenssens added. “We will see.”


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