Outrage in Belgium over Interview of Ex-bishopoutrage in Belgium over Interview of Ex-bishop

By Stephen Castle
New York Times
April 15, 2011

Belgium reacted with shock and outrage on Friday to a television interview in which a disgraced bishop revealed that he had abused two nephews, rather than the one previously acknowledged, and said that he did not consider himself a pedophile.

The comments came in a lengthy appearance on a Flemish television channel on Thursday night in which Roger Vangheluwe, 74, described how he resigned as bishop of Bruges a year ago after he admitted abusing a boy who was later revealed to be his nephew.

Vatican officials said this week that the bishop is receiving “spiritual and psychological treatment” outside Belgium and is not permitted to act as a priest until the Vatican rules in his case.

The Vatican said Pope Benedict XVI will eventually decide on the bishop’s fate based on the "diagnosis and prognosis" of his treatment, and on “the suffering of the victims and the need for justice.” Among possible punishments, the pope could rule that he be removed him from the priesthood.

Though Bishop Vangheluwe began the interview by saying he was sorry, his subsequent lack of public contrition — and a suggestion that he believed one nephew may have been a willing participant — provoked a storm of criticism from an array of public figures, including lawyers, church officials and government ministers.

“I think it is astonishing how this man does not feel any guilt, does not show any guilt,” said Christine Mussche, a lawyer for victims of sexual abuse. “He’s saying that the victims also enjoyed this and there is not feeling of regret at all.”

That sentiment was echoed by Karine Lalieux, a Belgian legislator who recently led a parliamentary committee on sexual abuse. “I say it’s sickening, disgusting,” Ms. Lalieux said. “Mr. Vangheluwe has not understood that he has committed crimes, he has minimized and relativized his crimes. I think of the victims and of their suffering.”

She called on the church authorities to recognize their collective responsibility for abuse that took place. Stefaan De Clerck, the Belgian justice minister, said his reaction was one of “amazement.”

Church officials were also quoted as expressing their surprise at the public appearance of the bishop, who gave details of his abuse of two nephews, one for some 13 years, the other for less than a year.

In a strong statement on Friday, the Belgian Bishops Conference said it was “extremely shocked by the way in which Bishop Vangheluwe minimized and made excuses for his actions and the consequences for the victims, their family, believers and the entire society.”

It called his actions “unacceptable,” and said that the interview “did not correspond at all” to the period of reflection that the Vatican had asked of him.

On Friday, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said that the Holy See was following the case closely, but that he had no comment beyond the statement issued by the Belgian Bishops Conference, which he said was “very expressive” of the Vatican’s position.

In the interview, Bishop Vangheluwe said his actions “had nothing to do with sexuality.” “I have often been involved with children and I never felt the slightest attraction,” he said. “It was a certain intimacy that took place.”

“I don’t have the impression at all that I am a pedophile,” he continued.

“It was really just a small relationship,” he said, referring to the 13-year relationship. I did not have the feeling that my nephew was against it — quite the contrary,”

He said that the abuse had stopped some 25 years ago, before he was a bishop, and that he had managed to live with his past in the intervening period.

“How did it begin?” he said. “As with all families. When they came to visit, the nephews slept with me. It began as a game with the boys. It was never a question of rape, there was never physical violence used.”

He added that the nephew with whom he had the longer relationship “never saw me naked and there was no penetration.”

Prosecutors in Bruges have said the abuse cases took place too long ago to be prosecuted now because of the country’s statute of limitations. However, lawyers representing his victims say they believe he might still face charges for failing to help others who faced abuse.

Walter Van Steenbrugge, a lawyer representing the nephew with whom the bishop had the longer relationship, said that neither he nor the other nephew wanted to comment on the interview at the moment.

The television interview may increase pressure on the Vatican to act more quickly on the bishop’s case.

“If ever an occasion demanded immediate and severe response from the Pope, Vangheluwe’s interview last night is it,” the group, which collects information on sex abuse in the Catholic Church, said in a statement.

It added that last year, the pope had been “quick to criticize” the raiding of church property in Belgium as “deplorable,” after Belgian authorities carried out an unprecedented sting operation searching for documents in various abuse investigations.

“His failure to defrock the bishop — an obvious and minimal step — suggests that corrupt clerics continue to get preferential treatment from Rome,” the group added.


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