Amid Baptism by Fire, Muscle in Brussels Enters Radio Silence

Whispers in the Loggia
October 29, 2010

After three decades of the genial progressivism of Cardinal Godfried Danneels, early January's appointment of André-Joseph Leonard as archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels promised the dawn of something new atop what remained of the Belgian church: a robust, markedly more traditional figure and staunch B16 ally with anything but unease about confronting the Low Country's secular status quo.

But now, what a difference ten months makes.

Weeks after Leonard's March installation, Belgium's longest serving ordinary -- Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of Bruges -- resigned amid revelations that he had abused his nephew both before and following his 1984 elevation. In its wake, the Bruges story set off a civil investigation that saw a monumental late June raid on church properties nationwide -- among them Danneels' apartment, the Brussels chancery, the national church's office for victim assistance, and even the crypt of Mechelen cathedral -- that no less than the Pope himself publicly protested as "deplorable."

Along the way, a tape made by Vangheluwe's survivor-nephew, now 41, of an April meeting with Danneels was subsequently leaked, presenting the cardinal -- once the country's most respected figure -- as fretting over public exposure of his confrere's misconduct (a portrayal Danneels' lawyer subsequently slammed as "character assassination").

Then, for about a month, the storms died down... until, last week, Leonard returned to the fray, terming AIDS "a sort of inherent justice" for irresponsible behavior in a freshly-released interview book, then calling earlier this week for elderly priests accused of sex-abuse to be spared "a sort of vengeance."

"Do [the victims] really want an 85-year-old priest, all of a sudden, pilloried in public?" the 69 year-old prelate asked in a TV interview, according to a wire report.

After both remarks sparked outrage across swaths of Belgian society and the national media against the backdrop of the abuse eruption, Reuters' Tom Heneghan reports that the primate who's already more than lived up to his mandate as "muscle in Brussels" is going dark... for a while:

"We're in a very serious crisis and the last thing we need is more commotion," Leonard's spokesman, Jurgen Mettepenningen, told Belgium's VTM television on Thursday evening.

"I've agreed with Archbishop Leonard that there should now be as much radio silence as possible until Christmas" so that the church can concentrate on overcoming the crisis and carrying out its main task of preaching the Gospel, he said....

Losing patience with the bishops, the lower house of parliament decided on Thursday to set up a special commission to investigate the abuse crisis. One deputy suggested changing tax laws to reduce a state subsidy the church receives.

Senator Rik Torfs, a canon lawyer, suggested Catholics sign a petition for Pope Benedict to remove Leonard from his top job in Belgium by "promoting him to Rome." He said: "The archbishop doesn't speak in our name and we didn't want him."...

Two leading Catholic magazines, Kerk en Leven and Tertio, have distanced themselves from Leonard, who is considered the most conservative and most outspoken of Belgium's bishops.

"I have the impression that he has very little empathy for the victims of sexual abuse," Bert Claerhout, editor of Kerk en Leven, told the daily De Standaard. "Leonard keeps on provoking ... I think and I hope that he's not doing this knowingly."

Ironically given the criticism he's taken, the archbishop had been given high marks on his first forays into the outbreak of revelations; in his first Easter homily in the capital, Leonard unstintingly decried the church's history of a "guilty silence" that "often gave preference to the reputation of certain men of the church over the honor of the abused children.

"For decades," he said, "the church, like other institutions, has badly managed the problem of pedophilia in its ranks while it had an evangelical obligation to protect the dignity of these children.... We must, by declaring the truth, restore their dignity which was abominably exploited."

While the country's bishops are planning to open a national center for healing and reconciliation of abuse late this year, the challenging moment for Belgium's largest religious group has only been underscored in recent weeks amid reports that Europe's oldest Catholic university at Leuven, its papal charter dating to 1425, is looking to drop the "Catholic" from its name.

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