Danneels Tapes 2: Mea Culpa

By Austen Ivereigh
America Magazine
September 1, 2010

I don't often correct myself, but I think I need to on this occasion. What I wrote on the devastating weekend story of how Cardinal Danneels sought to persuade an abuse victim to remain silent was, I now realise, too sympathetic to the former Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels.

I say this because my friend Tom Heneghan of Reuters -- who runs the indispensable Faithworld blog -- has been in touch, gently to point out that where I had written

And there is the abuse victim unable to forgive him. ("This is unsolvable," the nephew tells his uncle. "You've torn our family completely apart.") That exchange throws light on what Bishop Vangheluwe said when he resigned: that he had asked the victim and his family to forgive him but the wound had not healed, "neither in me nor the victim."

I was in fact misquoting Tom, who had in fact written: "This is unsolvable," the relative responds. "You've ...."

This is significant, because there was a fourth person present at the second meeting with Danneels, a relative who, it is safe to assume, was the same one who emailed the Belgian bishops to threaten to go public -- a threat which resulted in the resignation of Bishop Vangheluwe two weeks after the Danneels meeting. That threat was prompted by Danneels's continued refusal, in the first meeting, to act. Tom tells me:

In fact, during the first meeting between Danneels and the victim, the victim says several times he cannot go on with this secrecy and begs Danneels to help him report his uncle to the Church hierarchy. "I want to put it in your hands," he says, but Danneels refuses to help. He then mentions informing Archbishop Leonard and Pope Benedict, but Danneels brushes this off. The victim says he feels a duty to report his uncle because he's been reading about the scandals in other countries as well. He wants Vangheluwe to quit but not have any other information get out -- a naive assumption that Danneels immediately uses against him by saying that his name will quickly get out if his uncle admits to abuse but doesn't say who. The man comes across in the transcript as disturbed and distressed by his quandry and upset by the way Danneels deflects all pleas for help.

Tom also adds this crucial extra bit of information:

What is not said in the transcripts but was reported in the other paper running the transcripts (Het Nieuwsblad) is that the victim was moved to speak out after learning that Vangheluwe had consecrated a deacon who was a child abuser. One of his victims later committed suicide. Vangheluwe's victim felt this might have been avoided if he had spoken out about Vangheluwe years ago. The victim cannot just accept an apology from his uncle, he feels a duty to do more, but he does not come across as vengeful. At one point early on, he even says to Danneels that if he (D) suggests a coverup is the only way, he might have to learn to live with that. But then he pulls himself together again and says Vangheluwe simply cannot stay in office if the Church is to stand for anything at all.

Tom adds:

In the second transcript, he tries to get Vangheluwe off the hook with the family by having him apologise to the victim and his relative. Vangheluwe does this and then starts talking about how he feels liberated talking about this because he's been dragging it around for 20 years trying to figure out what he could do to resolve it without causing more pain. He begins to sound like he's sorry for himself. Danneels comments, "Yes, this isn't very easy, is it?" -- as if he's trying to convince the victim and relative that Vangheluwe is doing the maximum he can. That's when the relative says this is unsolvable. Then Danneels tells the victim and relative it's a big deal that Vangheluwe asks for forgiveness and suggests he do this in front of the whole family. That's when the relative says the bishop has torn the whole family apart. Danneels just says, "Yes, this is embarrassing" (or awkward), what do you think (he asks the victim)? The transcript stops there but you get the impression he is not putting any more pressure on the bishop.

Now, Cardinal Danneels's spokesman has made much of the fact that he had agreed to be a mediator in the family circle, and that "at no time was pressure exerted on the family or the victim to keep the event secret or to prevent their appealing to justice or to the Adriaenssens Commission" -- that's the body set up by the Church to investigate clerical sex abuse allegations. But the transcript, as described by Tom -- backed up my own impression from an English translation (quality not guaranteed) here -- does clearly show the kind of stonewalling which abuse victims have often reported from bishops.

There is nothing wrong with Cardinal Danneels inviting the victim to forgive his abuser uncle, Bishop Vangheluwe, but that path is refused by the victim, who wants action by the Church to ensure that his uncle no longer continues in active ministry. Given the extra information above about the deacon who abused, that is a reasonable desire on his part; and Pope Benedict has made clear that there is no place in the priesthood -- and here we are talking about a bishop -- for those who have abused young people.

But Cardinal Danneels closes off all the possibilities: a resignation would drag his name through the mud; he has no power over the bishop; only the Pope can ask him to resign, but the Pope is unreachable, and so on. Cardinal Danneels's insistence that he exerted no pressure on the victim to keep the event secret is undermined by the transcript; by effectively telling the victim continually that forgiveness is the best course and that other courses of action are either impractical or have grave consequences, the pressure is all too obvious.

There was an obvious course -- and Cardinal Danneels was obliged, under Pope John Paul II's motu proprio of 2001, to take it: namely, to inform the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. The whole point of that all-important declaration was that Rome must be notified in order to ensure that action is taken against priests who have admitted or been convicted of abuse. Its purpose was to prevent precisely the kind of stonewalling and brushing-under-the-carpet by bishops which have led to justified anger and frustration among abuse victims.

Leaving aside the question of whether the Cardinal should have involved the police -- the victim doesn't appear to want this, and we must assume that the Cardinal was, as he says, acting as a "family mediator" -- he should at least have offered to the victim recourse to the Church's own law, which calls for punishment "up to an including laicisation" for abusive priests.

I don't disown all of what I wrote before. But Tom has helped me to see this case more clearly. Cardinal Danneels was asked to act to ensure justice for an abuse victim, and he refused. That is a terrible indictment, and those who commented on the previous piece were right to take me to task for appearing to suggest otherwise.

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