Belgian Archbishop Vows Clean Slate

By Philippe Siuberski
Sydney Morning Herald
September 13, 2010

Rocked by revelations of 13 suicides among an avalanche of abuse testimony, Belgium's Catholic Church vowed on Monday to listen to its victims but steered clear of any witchhunt.

Its head, archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard, said the church would act to grant victims of sexual abuse by priests or church workers "maximum" access to officials, but did not spell out how audiences could be obtained or what could be delivered.

In fact, the only concrete initiative he announced to deal with complaints was vague plans to create a centre for "recognition, reconciliation and healing" within the church, with a target date for opening of Christmas.

In a bid to restore personal trust, "the first thing we have to regain," Leonard said the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Belgium has to "listen" to victims' and parishioners' questions."

That follows admissions by a bishop who quit that he paid a victim and persistent media allegations of a church cover-up.

Seeking to "re-establish their dignity and help to heal the suffering they have endured," Leonard said the clergy wants to "learn the lessons of the errors of the past."

A report on Friday published by the Commission on Church-related Sexual Abuse Complaints, set up by the Catholic Church and headed by child psychiatrist Peter Adriaenssens, said it had investigated 475 complaints between January and June this year.

The 200-page report -- available in French at -- contains testimonies from some 124 anonymous "survivors" and reveals that the sexual abuse for most victims began at age 12, although one was two years old.

"The reflections and conclusions contained in the report (on sexual abuse in the church) will be taken on board," Leonard told a live televised media conference.

Leonard "reiterated" a call for guilty priests and church workers to confess their crimes as well as their sins, saying past pleas to come forward had "not really been heard."

Following a string of similar scandals notably in Germany, Ireland and the United States, the dam broke in Belgium in April when the disgraced bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, quit having admitted sexually abusing his nephew between 1973 and 1986.

Vangheluwe announced on Sunday that he would now leave the Westvleteren abbey where he had sought refuge for several months to withdraw "to another place, away from the Bruges diocese."

"As my regrets have only increased, now I see all the harm that my actions caused," he said.

Leonard said it was "up to Rome to decide" Vangheluwe's fate within a "reasonable timeframe."

Of the idea for a reconciliation base, "there are complex questions to address and a large number of interested parties" to consult, said the bishop of Antwerp, Johan Bonny.

Campaigners Human Rights in the Church, an association of victims of sex abuse by priests, expressed disappointment at the lack of independence from the church in those plans.

"You can't investigate crimes committed when the body is controlled by the institution itself," said spokeswoman Lieve Halsberghe.

Files from Adriaenssens' commission were seized in raids by Belgian judicial authorities in June, but judges have since struck off from admissible evidence the fruits of that search as well as parallel swoops on the church headquarters in Brussels and at the home of its former top cardinal.

Belgian media meanwhile said that a Flemish priest who worked as a missionary with Inuits in the 1970s, Eric Dejaeger, plans to hand himself over to Canadian justice, where he faces fresh complaints of sexual abuse.

Dejaeger, who was sentenced in 1990 to five years behind bars for the rape of eight children before being released after 18 months, returned to Belgium in 2009. Belgian justice officials say they would need an extradition order from Canada to act.


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