Belgian Church Leader Urged Abuse Victim to Keep Silent

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The New York Times

Published: August 29, 2010


PARIS – The former leader of Belgium’s Roman Catholic Church urged a victim of serial sexual abuse by a bishop to keep silent for a year, until the bishop – the victim’s own uncle – could retire, according to tapes made by the victim last April and published over the weekend in two Belgian newspapers.

Eric Vidal/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Cardinal Godfried Danneels pressed a sexual abuse victim to either accept a private apology or wait until the bishop retired, according to tapes.

The tapes, which church authorities have verified as accurate, are among the more revealing documents in the continuing scandal of sexual abuse by clerics and subsequent cover-ups by the church in Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and other countries. And having a record of a cardinal’s entreating an abuse victim to keep his silence is another embarrassment for the Roman Catholic Church.

Cardinal Godfried Danneels, 77, who had retired as the archbishop of Brussels in January after 30 years, met with the victim, now 42, and his uncle, Bishop Robert Vangheluwe, 73, on April 8 to press the victim to accept either a private apology or to wait until the bishop retired, according to the tapes.

“The bishop will resign next year, so actually it would be better for you to wait, the cardinal told the victim. “I don’t think you’d do yourself or him a favor by shouting this from the rooftops.”

The cardinal warns the victim against trying to blackmail the church, suggests he accept a private apology from the bishop and not drag “his name through the mud.”

The victim responded: “He has dragged my whole life through the mud, from 5 until 18 years old,” and asks, “Why do you feel sorry for him and not for me?”

The fact of the April meeting had been reported by The International Herald Tribune and The New York Times in July after an interview with the victim, who said he had sought to alert the church about the molestation by his uncle for many years. He did not mention then that he had made a tape of that meeting and another one of another meeting.

The tapes, which were published on Saturday in the Flemish dailies De Standaard and Het Nieuwsblad, display the tactics the church used to try to hush up the scandal and placate the victim by appealing to his feelings for his family and the larger church.

De Standaard said in an editorial that the cardinal’s “only aim is to avoid having the case made public so many years after the facts,” adding, “It is containment, nothing more.”

The Belgian cases are special in part because of an extensive police inquiry, not just an investigation by the church, into allegations of clergy sex abuse and subsequent cover-ups. Cardinal Danneels has been subject to at least 10 hours of police questioning in the matter, and the police raided church headquarters to seize documents, a raid criticized by the Vatican.

In the end, Bishop Vangheluwe retired within two weeks of the April meeting, on April 23, admitting he had sexually abused “a boy in my entourage” 20 years earlier. He quit after a friend of the nephew emailed Belgian bishops threatening to expose the bishop and demanding his resignation.

In a second tape, of the other meeting, the bishop apologizes to his nephew and says he has tried for years to make up for his sin. “This is unsolvable,” the victim said. “You’ve torn our family completely apart.”

The victim told the newspapers he released the tapes, apparently made secretly, to prove that he did not demand hush money.

A spokesman for the cardinal, Toon Osaer, said that there had been no attempt to cover up the meeting itself. Tribune reporters were told in July that the family was angry because Cardinal Danneels accompanied the bishop to the April meeting, and not the new head of the Belgian church, Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard.

A retired priest, the Rev. Rik Devillé(, said he had tried to warn Cardinal Danneels about the bishop’s abuse of his nephew 14 years ago, but was berated by the cardinal for doing so.

It is not known whether Cardinal Danneels or others informed the Vatican when they learned of the abuse by Bishop Vangheluwe. The Vatican accepted the bishop’s resignation in June but said nothing about the case until Belgian police raided church properties on June 24, seizing evidence and files that the church had assembled in its own belated investigation of sexual abuse. Pope Benedict XVI at the time called the police actions “deplorable.

Bishop Vangheluwe has retreated to a Trappist monastery where he has kept his silence. Belgian police are investigating him in this case and others, as well as looking into charges that he concealed similar complaints of abuse made against other clerics.

Archbishop Léonard has made a public pledge that the bishop’s resignation marked an end to cover-ups, prompting hundreds of people, mostly men, to come forward with their own charges.


Abuse Took Years to Ignite Belgian Clergy Inquiry

New York Times

Published: July 12, 2010


WESTVLETEREN, Belgium — Behind an aggressive investigation of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Belgium that drew condemnation from the pope himself lies a stark family tragedy: the molestation, for years, of a youth by his uncle, the bishop of Bruges; the prelate’s abrupt resignation when a friend of the nephew finally threatened to make the abuse public; and now the grass-roots fury of almost 500 people complaining of abuse by priests.

Edwin Fontaine/Reuters
Roger Vangheluwe, the Bruges bishop, acknowledged molesting a boy and resigned in April.

Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of Bruges in the Holy Blood Procession in 2007. He quit this year after he admitted molesting a boy.

The first resignation of a European bishop for abusing a child relative came unexpectedly on April 23. At 73, the Bruges bishop, Roger Vangheluwe, Belgium’s longest-serving prelate, tersely announced his retirement and acknowledged molesting “a boy in my close entourage.”

The boy, not named, was his own nephew, now in his early 40s.

The nephew’s story, pieced together through documents and interviews with him and others, shows that the nephew, acting after years of torment and strong evidence of church inaction, finally forced the bishop’s hand when the friend sent e-mail messages to all of Belgium’s bishops threatening to expose Bishop Vangheluwe.

For nearly 25 years, the nephew said, he sought to alert others that he had been molested by his uncle. Abuse started when he was 10, according to a retired priest, the Rev. Rik Devillé, who said he had tried to warn Belgium’s cardinal, Godfried Danneels, about the Bruges prelate’s abuse 14 years ago, but was berated for doing so.

It is not known whether Cardinal Danneels or others notified the Vatican, itself mired in allegations of inaction on sexual abuse, about the case at the time.

The Vatican accepted the bishop’s resignation as the scandal erupted in April but said nothing about the case until the Belgian police raided church properties in late June, an act that Pope Benedict XVI called “deplorable.” Now Belgium is unique in that civil authorities seized the documents that the church might have used to pursue its own investigations, apparently placing long-shrouded cases in the public realm.

Over the years, the nephew — who still does not want his name used publicly — channeled his rage into creating art: giant screaming images in gnarled wood or a montage of a boy being crushed by a mattress.

The resignation for sexual abuse sent waves through the Catholic hierarchy in Flanders, the northern Dutch-speaking part of the country, where religion is a powerful cultural influence.

Bishop Vangheluwe, who retreated to a Trappist monastery, remains under investigation by the Belgian authorities in perhaps another child sexual abuse case and accusations that he concealed such complaints lodged against others.

A public pledge by Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard of Brussels that the Bruges resignation marked an end to cover-ups prompted more than 500 people — mostly men — to come forward in just two months.

“For the first time there is a generation of men who are telling that they were sexually abused by men,” said Peter Adriaenssens, a psychiatrist who led an internal church commission on sexual abuse but resigned last month after the police confiscated all his case files. Mr. Adriaenssens noted that many boys were beaten by parents who disbelieved their complaints. There was, he said, a “silencing of society.”

With so many new potential victims, the police staged extraordinary raids last month, holding bishops for nine hours at the church’s Belgian offices in Mechelen while scouring the premises for hidden material. They drilled into a cardinal’s crypt and confiscated computers and documents, searching for proof that the church had concealed evidence.

Bishop Vangheluwe’s nephew remains reluctant to speak extensively about what happened. “I’m scared, and the church has a lot of power,” he said, standing near a wooden image of two heads, one with a mouth carved wide into a scream.

Father Devillé, who was alerted to the bishop’s behavior by a friend of the nephew but had no direct contact with the abused youth, said: “For the nephew, it was impossible to say anything. He didn’t want anyone else to know because there was great pressure in the family to keep silent.”

Father Devillé said the abuse continued for about eight years. When he confronted Cardinal Danneels in 1996, he said, the cardinal listened impatiently, glancing frequently at his watch. Weeks later, Father Devillé received a letter from the cardinal. “Stop making unfounded public accusations against the church and its functionaries if you don’t have proof,” it read.

Under Belgian law, a sexual abuse victim can lodge a criminal complaint for only up to 10 years after turning 18. The church contends that Bishop Vangheluwe cannot face prosecution because the case is too old.

Cardinal Danneels, who was questioned for 10 hours last Tuesday by the police, said through his lawyer that he did not recall Bishop Vangheluwe’s name mentioned in connection with abuse.

Mr. Adriaenssens, who specializes in working with sexual abuse victims, said he believed that the turning point for the nephew came when a 12-year-old niece took home a holy card with a message from the bishop presented as a remembrance of her confirmation.

“It was a little card with a nice picture on the front and inside text from him on the importance of a healthy childhood,” Mr. Adriaenssens said. “This made him enraged.”

Abuse Took Years to Ignite Belgian Clergy InquiryA meeting was arranged in April between the nephew, his family and the bishop of Bruges. But the family was infuriated that the retired Cardinal Danneels was the only other cleric present. They were expecting the newly appointed archbishop to attend, according to Mr. Adriaenssens, who said the family feared that the church was maneuvering to “silence” it.

Nicolas Maeterlinck/European Pressphoto Agency
Cardinal Godfried Danneels at a news conference in April about Bishop Vangheluwe.

Those suspicions were rooted deep because Belgian church officials failed to cooperate with child abuse cases stretching back over many years, according to Godelieve Halsberghe, a retired magistrate who led the internal church commission from 2000 to 2008.

In those eight years, Ms. Halsberghe said, she dealt with 33 cases, with 15 or 16 outstanding when she retired and the other half resolved with compensation for the victims, generally tens of thousands of euros. Church officials said only four cases were left outstanding. They also said that all cases notified to them after 2001 were passed on to the Vatican in accordance with rules set then by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, named pope in 2005. She said she dealt only with the Belgian church.

By April 19 this year, the e-mail messages from the nephew’s friend had reached all of Belgium’s bishops. A day later, Mr. Adriaenssens received news of a call from the nephew making a formal complaint to the commission hot line about his uncle. Mr. Adriaenssens called the bishop.

“This is your first moment to be a real priest,” Mr. Adriaenssens said he told him after the bishop admitted responsibility. Within an hour of calls to other commissioners, the view was: The bishop had to resign.

Now Belgian prosecutors and investigators must sort the hundreds of complaints that have emerged since.

Justice Minister Stefaan De Clerck said his nation was living through a period of soul-searching similar to what followed the scandal over Marc Dutroux, who was arrested in 1996 and eventually convicted in the kidnapping, torture and sexual abuse of six girls, including four who died even though the police searched his home while some victims were imprisoned there.

“How can you explain that so many people didn’t go to police, didn’t go to justice?” Mr. De Clerck asked.  

Mr. Vangheluwe is abiding by an agreement with the conference of bishops that he cannot grant interviews while living in St. Sixtus Abbey here in Westvleteren. 

 At vespers on Thursday, he stood out among 24 monks in homespun black and white robes. Holding a prayer book turned to Psalm 99, he was a stooped figure in gray trousers, a light short-sleeved shirt and sandals.  

After prayers, half of the monks left; Mr. Vangheluwe stayed for an optional 10 minutes of silent contemplation. 

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