Cardinal, Who Mediated in Belgian Abuse Case, Says He Was Misled

By Doreen Carvajal
New York Times
September 1, 2010

With the recent release of tapes chronicling the private clash of a family over sexual abuse by a Belgian bishop, the retired cardinal who played a role as a mediator is now distancing himself from his longtime colleague and friend.

The cardinal, Godfried Danneels, 77, has moved to defend himself after the release of the tapes, which have provoked withering criticism of the cardinal, who was urging reconciliation in the matter.

The lawyer representing Cardinal Danneels criticized Roger Vangheluwe, 73, the former bishop of Bruges, who was the cardinal's friend for more than 25 years. Mr. Vangheluwe resigned in April after the scandal and has retreated to a spartan Trappist monastery in Westvleteren, Belgium.

"Knowing the facts, I think it is fair to say the cardinal was misled by Bishop Vangheluwe," said Fernand Keuleneer, the cardinal's lawyer, adding that his client may have been "trapped."

The tapes, which were secretly recorded in April by the victim, the nephew of Mr. Vangheluwe, reveal a dramatic confrontation, which concerned 13 years of sexual abuse by his uncle.

For Cardinal Danneels, the uproar over the transcripts overlooked key circumstances of that meeting, including the turmoil within the nephew's own family over what to do and the last-minute efforts of the bishop to press the cardinal into service as a mediator while the family was already en route to the meeting, Mr. Keuleneer said.

The nephew, a 42-year-old artist, and his family had kept the childhood abuse from age 5 until age 18 a secret for almost 24 years until after the tense encounter with the bishop and the cardinal on April 8.

The nephew, who prefers not to be named, did not reveal the recordings until August because he was angered by the church's treatment of him after his uncle's resignation, said Christina Mussche, the nephew's lawyer in Ghent.

She said that he had felt victimized again after televised comments from a church spokesman for the diocese of Bruges, who said that the victim had received substantial amounts of money from his uncle for several years.

"Why did he tape it? For 24 years he wanted his uncle to resign," Ms. Mussche said, adding that the nephew gave the recordings to judicial investigators and local newspapers to show how the system worked and that he had not pressed for money in the encounter. "He wanted proof of what the church was never able to say: I was wrong. I confess. I plead guilty and take my responsibility."

Ms. Mussche confirmed that over several years the bishop voluntarily sent his nephew gifts of money though he never asked for it. Some Belgium newspapers have labeled it hush money, but typically, she said, Mr. Vangheluwe would send amounts that were "not huge and not nothing" on his birthday, Easter, New Year's, and, "strangely, Valentine's Day."

The release of transcripts of that private meeting to Flemish daily newspapers De Standaard and Het Nieuwsblad has had an explosive effect in Belgium, which has been riveted by the ongoing drama.

A public pledge by Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard of Brussels that the Bruges resignation marked an end to cover-ups prompted more than 500 people mostly men to come forward with complaints, which led to a broader judicial inquiry into allegation of sexual abuse by clergy and subsequent cover-ups.

The April 8 meeting and transcripts offered a window on that insular world, according to Ms. Mussche, who said the nephew's next step was to challenge the church in court for failure to protect him from abuse.

At the meeting, Cardinal Danneels acted as the mediator with the bishop and the nephew and about a half dozen family members, including the nephew's father, the brother of the bishop, according to Ms. Mussche. The nephew has declined to speak about the meeting, saying this week that he feels uncomfortable speaking publicly.

According to the transcripts, at one point the nephew chides the cardinal: "Why do you feel sorry for him and not me?" adding, "You always try to defend him. I thought I was going to have some support." When he asked at point what should be done, the cardinal replied: "forgiveness."

Ms. Mussche, who specializes in child sex abuse cases, said the secret recordings explain why so many victims were discouraged from reporting incidents for decades. "The cardinal does it in quite a gentle way, but he does it with authority, and he makes the victim scared of daring to go against the church," she said, noting that the nephew pleaded for the cardinal or the bishop's superior to take up the matter. "The cardinal says it might not be so good for you to do that. It's so clear there was only one purpose: controlling the damage for the church, but never the intention of listening to the victim."

A transcript of the family's discussions, which was also recorded secretly by the nephew, was not published. Mr. Keuleneer, the cardinal's lawyer, argued that would have demonstrated the cardinal was trying to mediate a family profoundly split over making the issue public.

"It would have shown a deeply divided family," Mr. Keuleneer said, "with family members who explicitly didn't want to go public and other family members who explicitly wanted to go public." Referring to Cardinal Danneels, he added: "He was trying to get something which would be acceptable to everyone" and suggested a meeting with the new archbishop.

Cardinal Danneels, who submitted to 10 hours of police questioning in July about the unfolding sex abuse scandal in the Belgium church, now feels he was misled into the meeting, according to Mr. Keuleneer.

Mr. Vangheluwe admitted the abuse on April 1 or 2 in a telephone call to the cardinal and then spontaneously asked the cardinal during a retirement event April 8 to meet the family in Bruges. The nephew was expecting the new archbishop, Archbishop Leonard, to be present. But Cardinal Danneels was not told this by Bishop Vangheluwe, Mr. Keuleneer said.

Mr. Keuleneer rejected the claim that the tapes showed how the church tried to minimize damage. "Cardinal Danneels is not someone who expresses a lot of emotion through his words and speeches. But to deduce from this that he was exercising pressure or causing injustice to the victim is outrageous."

He acknowledged, though, that the cardinal had exposed himself to criticism by not reporting the bishop's confession immediately: "Cardinal Danneels has never paid that much attention to procedure. Cardinal Danneels is a pastor, he's trying to achieve reconciliation."

Since June, the police investigation and the legality of the extraordinary raids on the headquarters of the Belgian Roman Catholic Church, have been challenged in the country's courts. Despite one ruling which has been kept secret, no definitive decision has yet been reached by the country's judicial system.

While the analysis continues of thousands of documents seized in church raids, the former bishop of Bruges remains in his refuge in the spartan St. Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren, where he is abiding by an agreement struck with the conference of bishops that he cannot grant interviews.

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