Victims Angry As Belgium Responds to Church Abuse

By Stephen Castle
New York Times
September 13, 2010

Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Brussels, arrived at a news conference on Monday.

BRUSSELS — The leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Belgium on Monday acknowledged the scale of the scandal that had engulfed the country over sexual abuse by priests and promised to do more for the victims, but he offered few short-term solutions and said little of substance about further pursuing the abusers.

The church leader, Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard, said at a news conference that suffering had caused a “shiver” to run through the church, but that it was too soon for a detailed response to the crisis. The extent of the abuse was revealed in a report published Friday.

The lack of more comprehensive steps was greeted with anger by representatives of victims, with one lawyer calling the church’s response “scandalous.”

The one concrete announcement from the archbishop was that the church in Belgium would set up a new center for victims to focus on “recognition, reconciliation and healing,” which is likely to open at the end of the year.

That effort follows the release of the 200-page report on Friday, compiled by an internal commission set up by the church, which included harrowing testimony from victims and said that one had been abused from the age of 2. Thirteen people are thought to have committed suicide as a result of abuse, the report said.

The internal commission, led by Peter Adriaenssens, a prominent psychiatrist, decided to wrap up its work after the police carried out a series of high-profile raids on church property in June. In one raid, the police searched the church offices in Mechelen, disturbing the tomb of a cardinal in an unsuccessful hunt for proof of a cover-up. Belgium’s Court of Appeal has since ruled that documents seized in such raids should not be admissible in any trial.

By holding Monday’s news conference, the church appeared to be acknowledging the task it faces in re-establishing trust among a Belgian population shocked by revelations that abuse stretches back decades.

Belgium is the country in which the secular authorities have stepped most forcefully into the Roman Catholic Church’s abuse scandal.

Though there was no direct apology to the victims on Monday, the archbishop expressed anger and alarm over the scandal and promised to engage with the victims as much as possible.

“We must listen to their questions to re-establish their dignity and help them to heal the suffering they have endured,” Archbishop Leonard said.

But there was no clear proposal for pursuing the abusers or for compensating their victims, resulting in disappointment for some of the groups representing those affected. Most of the wrongdoing took place more than 10 years ago, past the statute of limitations for legal prosecution.

“I have had some reaction from my clients — 35 victims — all of them were very, very angry with this scandalous reaction,” said Walter Van Steenbrugge, a lawyer representing some of the abuse victims. “We were thinking they were ready to pay the costs of all the therapy the victims needed in all these years.”

Instead, the response was “very, very disappointing,” Mr. Van Steenbrugge said, adding that his clients would pursue civil cases against the church.

Lieve Halsberghe, who represents a victims’ group called Human Rights in the Church, said: “They are reading from a script. They are promising that they are going to do things, but we don’t see anything concrete.”

She continued: “We want the guilty to be punished, and we want the story dug out so every victim has justice. There are perpetrators out there who have not confessed and not admitted that they have done wrong. They are psychologically terrorizing their victims.”

The group wants any new structure aimed at helping victims to be independent of the church. Some abuse victims will want compensation, Ms. Halsberghe said, while others will not.

Mr. Van Steenbrugge and Ms. Halsberghe criticized the archbishop’s call for a dialogue with the legal authorities as well as with victims. This, they suggested, could threaten the independence of the judicial process.

The scandal became public when the former bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, resigned in April after admitting that he had abused a boy later revealed to be his nephew. Former Bishop Vangheluwe said Saturday that he would leave the Trappist monastery where he had been living and go into hiding.

Protected from prosecution by the statute of limitations, the former bishop has faced increasing calls to give up his status as a priest. Archbishop Leonard said it was for the Vatican to decide on any punishment.

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said the pope had already accepted former Bishop Vangheluwe’s resignation, and since the bishop had already left the diocese and the ministry, he was “no longer involved” in the local church. “He has retired to prayer and penitence,” Father Lombardi said.

Father Lombardi said that as far as he knew, no official request had been made to the Vatican to defrock Bishop Vangheluwe.


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