The Belgian Church's " Mea Culpa"

Vatican Insider
January 3, 2012

André-Joseph Lèonard

The major sexual abuse scandal that struck part of the national clergy has led the primate to a public confession and commitment to the community

"I ask your forgiveness." In the space between a "painful" 2011 and the opening of a 2012 of "purification," the Catholic primate of Belgium and Archbishop of Brussels, André-Joseph Lèonard, extended a "mea culpa" for sexual abuse by members of the clergy. On behalf of a national church badly affected by the pedophile priest scandal, Monsignor Lèonard took responsibility for the sins of priests and religious "infidels," while the church hierarchy in Belgium goes through a particularly difficult time as well, due to internal challenges by "dissidents." The "mea culpa" extended by Lèonard a bishop who is very Ratzingerian in his sensibilities - comes at a time when the Belgian church hierarchy is particularly under pressure.

After the 2010 evisceration of the tomb of the prestigious Cardinal Leon-Joseph Suenens by the Belgian police in search of secret papers (a dramatic breakthrough of secular culture into Catholicism), the sorties went on constantly until the most recent in September, when, at the Court of Ghent, around seventy victims of pedophile priests publicly denounced the Belgian Conference of Bishops and the Vatican for doing nothing to prevent the alleged crimes that took place in the diocese of Bruges.

Up until a few months ago, the Belgian church was led by Cardinal Godfried Danneels, the prestigious primate who soon became "the great ogre" that the mass media believed to have worked to protect pedophile priests. These allegations also caused some clergy and faithful to call for reform: priestly celibacy, in particular, is seen as the triggering source of the abuse. The Vatican asks Lèonard to hold firm, but it is not easy. Two months ago, the New York Times reported that in Buizingen, southwest of Brussels, a movement has arisen - a lay alternative to the official church to hold Mass when there are no priests available. In Father Bosco's church, in fact, the pastor died, and no young priest was found to replace him. And thus the faithful have created a new Catholic movement in which functions are celebrated by the laity. Meanwhile, in the formerly Catholic country, over two hundred rebel priests, supported by thousands of lay faithful, have signed a document calling for the entrance of the divorced and remarried into communion, the ordination of married men and women, and allowing the laity to preach.

Among the signatories of this document are some prominent Belgian Catholics: Roger Dillemans, honorary president of the Catholic University of Leuven, Paul Breyne, governor since 1997 of the province of West Flanders (1.2 million inhabitants), Trees Dehaene and Agnes Pas, former president of the Inter-Diocesan Pastoral Council, and finally prominent priests such as John Dekimpe, Ignace Dewitte, and Staf Nimmegeers. The statement mentions its grassroots basis, saying it has "broad support in all our dioceses." Because, the promoters of the initiative say, "we are convinced that if we speak up as believers, the bishops will listen and be ready to move the dialogue forward on these urgently needed reforms."

A year ago the violent storm struck the head of the Belgian Catholic Church, Andrè-Joseph Lèonard,, who had asked clemency for the elderly pedophile priests: from socialist Francophones to liberal Flemish-speakers, many were "outraged" by his statements about absolving those who had committed abuses, provided they are no longer in service. Bishop Lèonard's proposal was considered "unacceptable" by the two socialist deputy members of the Special Commission for Pedophilia in the Church. Monsignor Lèonard said that to condemn the senior priests would be to take a kind of "revenge," but according to the socialists Karine Lalieux and Valerie Deom, doing justice does not mean revenge. "Once again," according to the deputies, "Lèonard tries to make the victims feel guilty, and applies pressure to induce them to stop asking that justice be done, as is their right." It is not Lèonard, said the Socialists, who must provide guidance on whether or not to convict - "human justice" must be allowed to take its course and to determine any penalties. The Flemish liberals stated that they were "particularly shocked": "Justice is an affair of the State in which a man of the church should not intervene," said deputies Carina Van Cauter and Sabien Lahaye-Battheu, authors of a bill to increase the 30-year statute of limitations for the crime of sexual abuse of minors. Monsignor Lèonard has been repeatedly criticized for ignoring the many complaints of the victims of abuses committed by Belgian priests. In response to the accusations, the Belgian Catholic Church has decided to administer psychological tests to its young seminarians in order to avoid any pedophile tendencies.

"The Church must do a better job to protect children." These tests will be accompanied by regular meetings with specialized psychologists who follow the provisions of a code to prevent child abuse a decision dictated precisely by the cyclone of scandals that rocked the clergy of that country after hundreds of cases of abuse in the fifties and sixties came to light in recent months. To shed some light on what took place, the Adriaenssens Commission was established in 2000 by the Curia itself (named for the psychologist Peter Adriaenssens who heads it) to investigate abuses in Belgian parishes over the last fifty years. Over a few months of investigation, the commission received 450 complaints from victims of abuses committed between 1960 and 1985 by priests, teachers, and leaders of youth movements. According to the report prepared by the commission, "the majority of the victims were about 12 years old," "one was 2, five were 4, eight were 5, and ten were 7." According to the report, 102 of the abuses were committed by members of one of the 29 religious congregations in Belgium.

Thirteen of these victims were unable to overcome the trauma, and committed suicide. One of the most scandalous cases brought up by the Investigation Committee in April 2010 was that of Monsignor Roger Vangheluwe, 74, former bishop of Bruges, one of the most important dioceses of Flanders. The prelate has confessed to sexually abusing his nephew, a minor, both when he was a priest and after he was appointed bishop. On that occasion, Archbishop André-Joseph Lèonard, declared that "from now on, the Belgian Church is committed to an effort to achieve transparency, resolutely turning the page on the era, not so far away, in which the Church, as elsewhere, preferred the solution of silence or camouflage" - serious words that many have interpreted as a harsh criticism of his predecessor, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, who had retired just a few months before. The decision to subject young seminarians to psychological testing has had a lukewarm reception from those who defend the victims, such as attorney Walter Van Steenbrugge, who told the Belgian weekly Le Vif/L'Express that "studying the psychological profiles of future priests is a minimal step in the right direction, but goes no further. Why doesn't the Church eliminate the dogmas that truly lie at the base of the problem, such as the role of women and the celibacy of priests?"

In September, an American association for the protection of victims of pedophile priests asked the International Criminal Court in The Hague to indict Benedict XVI and three Vatican prelates (Tarcisio Bertone, Angelo Sodano, and William Levada) for having "tolerated abuse and molestation of minors," despite the fact that no one has done as much as Joseph Ratzinger has against abuse. This association, Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), and the NGO Human Rights Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), are making the rounds of European capitals to "gather information" and "testimonials of other victims."


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