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For a Lady Pope

Paedophilia within the Belgian Catholic Church

Summarising the evolution of the cases of paedophilia in the Belgian Catholic Church is not easy, as so many events have taken place over the past few years. We will therefore simply underline the main events. The most complete history of events can be found in the parliamentary committee’s report, http://www.lachambre.be/FLWB/PDF/53/0520/53K0520002.pdf, which treated the subject. We have drawn heavily on this resource.

Various commissions are often referred to when talking about paedophilia within the Belgian Catholic Church. There were two internal commissions that were set up by the Church, one following the other. The first was the Halberghe Commission (2000 - February 2009) and the second, the Adriaenssens Commission (March – June 2010). Furthermore, the Parliamentary Commission, referred to above, worked from October 28th 2010 to March 31st 2011.

The Association Mensenrechten in de Kerk (Peoples’ rights in the Church)

The Parliamentary Commission teaches us that the first people in Belgium to be seriously worried about the problem of paedophilia within the Church came from an association called the Mensenrechten in de Kerk, created in the beginning of the 90s by a priest, Rik Devillé. This working group testified to numerous meetings with bishops and to sending out hundreds of letters to these prelates as well as to the Belgian and Vatican primates only to get back, for the most part, the same answer; “We can’t do anything for you, but pray.” In 1999, the association registered 87 serious cases of violation against human rights by the Church, to which another 264 cases were added between 2000 and 2010.

The Parliamentary Commission concluded that the Catholic Church had known about what was going on as early as the beginning of the 1990s and could not, with any decency, plead ignorant to the facts. Access to confidential documents that had been filed away, showed that letters had indeed been exchanged, and information passed on.

The Halsberghe Commission

Let’s go back to 2000. An ‘interdiocesan Commission for the treatment of complaints about sexual abuse in pastoral relationships was set up by Mr Luystermans, the former bishop of Gent, to help the victims. It was chaired by Godelieve Halsberghe for almost ten years. The commission received 33 complaints of sexual abuse within the Church.

The Halsberghe Commission dealt with files to which penal prescription (in penal law the canonical provision for time limits within which a criminal action can be brought to justice) applied and, as a result, they couldn’t be passed on to the justice systems. The Commission’s main objective then was to examine the allocation of compensation - financial or otherwise – to the victims, as they would get nothing more from human justice.

The members of the Commission resigned on 25th February 2009. One thing that is certain, is that the Church was extremely averse to allowing the Commission to offer compensation to the victims. The Church is said to have feared that offering compensation would only encourage others to complain and would imply that the Church was accepting responsibility for what had happened. The President is said to have been disappointed by the Church’s attitude and reproached the Archdeacon of Mechelen for not having replied to letters addressed to him over the previous ten months.

The Adrianssens Commission

On the 3rd March 2010, the episcopal Conference voted for a new Commission to be set up to handle the complaints of sexual abuse in pastoral relations. Peter Adriaenssens was elected president.

Mr Adriaenssens never wanted the Commission’s main goal to be just one of paying damages and therefore no compensation for the victims was foreseen at that time.

During the night of the 19th April 2010, the bishops heard that a complaint had been made against one of them, a certain Roger Vangheluwe, which accused him of having sexually abused his nephew. The abuse had started before his ordination as bishop and had continued for  « some time afterwards ». « Over the past few decades I have, on several occasions, admitted to my errors towards him and his family and asked for their forgiveness. But this hasn’t appeased them. Me, neither. » Roger Vangheluwe declared.

On the 23rd April, it was announced during a press conference that the bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangeluwe, had resigned. An appeal was launched by his Eminence Léonard, President of the Episcopal Conference, asking victims to make themselves known and to blow the whistle on what had happened.

In the 8 weeks that followed, the new internal commission for the Church received 475 complaints. 49 of the victims were French speakers, the others Flemish. Bishop Vangheluwe’s resignation had apparently put to rest any lingering doubts as to whether or not the Church was willing to investigate the complaints and many victims decided to come forward.

The total number of victims rose to 507, of which 327 (64%) were men. The sex of 19 of the victims is unknown. Many victims revealed how the abuse they had suffered had had repercussions on their physical and mental health and on their relationships. We know that 13 victims committed suicide as a result of sexual abuse committed on them by someone in the Church. Six people admitted to having attempted suicide and one victim revealed how his traumatic past had so greatly impacted his relationships that even his partner had committed suicide.

Those responsible are all men. 95 of them are still alive and 91 have died. There is no information available concerning the other perpetrators. We do know that 102 of those responsible were members of a congregation.  

On the 7th May 2011, the Justice Minister announced that an examining magistrate would be designated to centralise all cases.

The majority of abuse against the male victims took place on boys aged between 10 and 14. Female victims of all ages were abused equally. 80% of the victims are now aged between 40 and 70 years old, the crimes having taken place in the 50s and at the end of the 80s. Many of the younger victims had no knowledge of sex before the abuse took place.

According to witnesses, every single diocese, congregation, school and boarding school had at least one priest or member who was sexually abusing children. []

The Parliamentary Commission also noted that, in 80 to 90 of the 500 cases, the victims had contacted the Church about their abuse but that their complaints had never been appropriately handled. This includes Cardinal Danneels, who was accused of sexual abuse in over 40 files, but against whom no action was ever taken.

A fear of weakening the Institution meant that all charges were met with denial and silence.

On the 19th May 2010, in a letter from the President of the Conference of Bishops, signed by all its members, the Church asked the victims of sexual abuse to forgive the attacks against them. The Conference thought that this request for forgiveness was necessary from a psychological point of view, but the bishops weren’t prepared to consider themselves responsible for the crimes committed saying that they weren’t the actual perpetrators and hadn’t sinned through negligence.

Judge Wim de Troy’s perquisitions

On the 24th June 2010, the investigating magistrate, Wim de Troy, ordered search warrants on the Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels’ residence, on Cardinal Danneel’s private home, on Mechelen cathedral and on the offices of the Adriaenssens Commission. An appeals court ruled that a raid by police to seize the commission's files was illegal, and that the files could not be used by prosecutors. As a result the Adriaenssens Commission shut down on 28th June 2010. The bishops accepted the resignation.

Professor Adriaenssens presented his damning report against the Church on 10th September 2010 in a press conference.

On many occasions, the House of Indictments in Brussels had to hand down a decision on the legality or illegality of the search warrants on, and confiscation of, material from the Episcopal Palace and the home of Godfried Danneels.

The Parliamentary Commission

From November 2010 to March 2011, the Parliamentary Commission, chaired by the deputy Karine Lalieux, heard the bishops, the heads of the religious congregations, those representing the victims, and various politicians, in an attempt to analyse why the abuse had occurred and what was needed to cure it. Her report was published on 1st April 2011 and contained 70 recommendations. Large extracts from this report have been quoted in this article.

As far as taking responsibility goes, the report by the Lalieux Commission states that the majority of religious authorities remain of the opinion that, following a penal or civil trial, only the perpetrator of the crime should be forced to compensate his victim(s), even if some religious authorities are convinced that all sectors of society should intervene and compensate victims of sexual abuse in general. Nevertheless, it seems that the idea of the Church itself awarding compensation on the strength of morals and solidarity, is slowly being accepted. In fact, the Episcopal Conference and congregations and religious orders have announced that a progress report will be aired before April 2011.

According to witnesses, some people are still reluctant to pass their complaints on to the federal magistrate who is, in turn, charged with referring them to the competent court. Those victims who are currently turning to the justice systems know that the crimes committed against them fall under prescription but above all they want to be able to speak out, to be part of the movement and to have their status as victims put down on record.

The Justice Minister’s opinion

The Justice Minister, Stefaan De Clerck, has asked the Church to take the initiative, to admit that the abuse took place and to meet those victims who were sexually abused by priests. « Financial compensation might need to be given, but the Church has to study each individual case as closely as possible and decide which type of compensation would be best ».

The case of Bishop Vangheluwe

The Bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwé, born in 1937, resigned in April 2010, after admitting that between 1973 and 1986 he had sexually abused his nephew, a minor at that time. He had been ordained as Bishop in December 1984 and the Pope accepted his resignation on the same day that it was handed in. The prelate paid out a large sum of money to his nephew’s family by way of compensation.

In April 2010, in a televised interview, he admitted to having also abused another nephew.

He will not be prosecuted under Belgian law because the crimes of which he is accused are covered by prescription.

As for the Vatican, it imposed a period of observation on the offending bishop and dictated that he receive spiritual and psychological help before the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith makes a decision. He was also told to leave Belgium.

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Paedophilia within the Belgian Catholic Church

Summarising the evolution of the cases of paedophilia in the Belgian Catholic Church is not easy, as so many events have taken place over the past few years. We will therefore simply underline the main events. The most complete history of events can be found in the parliamentary committee’s report, http://www.lachambre.be/FLWB/PDF/53/0520/53K0520002.pdf, which treated the subject. We have drawn heavily on this resource. Various commissions are often referred to when talking about paedophilia within the Belgian Catholic Church. There were two internal commissions that were set up by the Church, one following the other. The first was the Halberghe Commission (2000 - February 2009) and the second, the Adriaenssens Commission (March – June 2010). Furthermore, the Parliamentary Commission, referred to above, worked from October 28th 2010 to March 31st 2011.

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