15 April 2011
The Catholic Church was left “stupefied” Friday as Belgium reacted with revulsion to new child sex abuse horrors admitted by an ex-bishop that the Vatican placed in exile rather than face earthly justice.
Roger Vangheluwe told Belgian television that he abused one nephew for 13 years and another for nearly 12 months — but that there was “no penetration” and that he didn’t “in the slightest” think he was a paedophile.
Days after church bosses ordered Vangheluwe to undergo “spiritual and psychological treatment” in a French hide-out, identified by media as La Ferte-Imbault in the wine-rich Loire Valley, Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme laid into remarks he said “go beyond the boundary of what is acceptable.”
“The Church must assume its responsibilities — this cannot go on,” Leterme insisted.
Belgium’s bishops likewise expressed collective “shock” at comments “playing down” and “offering excuses” for years spent sexually abusing boys while preaching from a pulpit — and a Thursday night media appearance they said contravened strict orders from Rome.
“We trusted him to withdraw in silence abroad,” a statement said.
In the Vatican City, Pope Benedict XVI’s spokesman Federico Lombardi said the Holy See was “conscious of the gravity” of Vangheluwe’s case, and was assembling “the necessary elements” for a “detailed evaluation.”
He said the Belgian bishops had perfectly expressed “the feelings of stupefaction and concern aroused.”
Lombardi said earlier this week that the Vatican was considering “the requirements of the justice system” in Belgium.
“This is a sick man speaking, either that or it’s the standard reaction of a paedophile,” noted the bishop of Tournai, Guy Harpigny.
“He should not be in a French abbey,” cried Flemish newspaper Gazet van Antwerpen, “but in a jail cell or in a psychiatric institution.”
“How did it start?,” Vangheluwe said in the interview. “As in all families: when they came to visit, my nephews would stay over.
“It began as a kind of game with this boy. It was never a question of rape, or physical violence. He never saw me naked and there was no penetration.
“I don’t in the slightest have any sense I am a paedophile. I don’t get the impression my nephew was opposed, quite the contrary,” he added although he also admitted: “I knew it wasn’t good, I confessed it several times.”
He said the abuse ended when the family learned of it, but that they agreed to keep it under wraps — Vangheluwe paying millions of old Belgian francs to the victim.
He said he had to “talk regularly” with a designated psychiatrist and reiterated an earlier defence that the abuse “ended 25 years ago,” adding he had been able to “work very well” as a priest thereafter.
Belgian justice minister Stefaan De Clerck said the comments were a “slap in the face” for all victims.
The head of a Belgian parliamentary inquiry meanwhile slammed “protection” for Vangheluwe by the church hierarchy.
Socialist Karine Lalieux, probing a decades-long scandal of Belgian church sex abuse extending to more than 500 victims and 13 known suicides, wants Vangheluwe “one day” to “face justice in his country and answer to his crimes.”
She also backs mounting calls for the church to compensate victims.
Vangheluwe resigned as bishop of northern Bruges last year after admitting sexual abuse between 1973 and 1986 — blowing the lid off an unprecedented catalogue of shame following similar scandals in the United States and Germany.
The Belgian church fought a rearguard legal action to prevent prosecutors using evidence seized in massive police raids criticised by the pope himself.
Vangheluwe’s successor, Jozef De Kesel, said the latest tales of furtive nights and days under the covers had now sucked in the church as well as the physical victims.
“I’m not speaking about our image,” De Kesel said, “but about our credibility.”
Any decision to defrock Vangheluwe rests ultimately with the pope.
Vatican fails the pedophile response test, again
Araminta Wordsworth Apr 15, 2011 – 2:51 PM ET | Last Updated: Apr 15, 2011 2:54 PM ET
Belgium’s Bruges Bishop Roger Vangheluwe during an interview with Belgian television
Full Comment’s Araminta Wordsworth brings you a daily round-up of quality punditry from across the globe. Today: While Pope Benedict frets about the words being used in the mass and muzzling an uppity American nun, legions of Roman Catholic clerical pedophiles are being allowed to get on with it.
What will it take for the Church to root out the priestly predators?
The case of Roger Vangheluwe, the former bishop of Bruges, is the latest dispiriting example of the Vatican’s failure to get the point. On Thursday, he admitted on television he had sexually abused two of his nephews, though he did his best to downplay the seriousness of his acts, insisting he was not a pedophile.
“It began as a kind of game with this boy,” said the 74-year-old. “It was never a question of rape, or physical violence. He never saw me naked and there was no penetration.”
“I don’t in the slightest have any sense I am a pedophile. I don’t get the impression my nephew was opposed, quite the contrary,” he added although he also admitted, “I knew it wasn’t good, I confessed it several times.”
No one in the family seemed very concerned, he claimed. Vangheluwe also admitted he gave one million Belgian francs to one of the boys, but not to pay him off, you understand. It was to enable him to buy a house.
The punishment for the most senior Catholic cleric to admit to abuse? — “spiritual and psychological treatment” at a cushy retreat in the Loire Valley in neighbouring France. And in a slap on the wrist with a wet noodle, he’s also been told he can no longer perform the duties of a priest in public.
Belgians — clerics and lay people alike — are “stupefied” by the latest revelations. Yves Leterme, the Belgian Prime Minister, said his remarks “go beyond the boundary of what is acceptable. “The Church must assume its responsibilities — this cannot go on.”
“I think it is astonishing how this man does not feel any guilt, does not show any guilt,” Christine Mussche, a lawyer for victims of sexual abuse, told The New York Times.
“He’s saying that the victims also enjoyed this and there is not feeling of regret at all. It is terrible for the victim — one year after this emerged — that he doesn’t feel any normal regret.”
That sentiment was echoed by Karine Lalieux, the 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.”
Words like disgusting and appalling echo through the comments of Belgian media. “How can this man dare appear on television?” asks Paul Geudens in the Flemish newspaper the Antwerp Gazette, who says his hair stood on end listening to the ex-bishop.
“ ‘Here everything is fine. Love and kisses from sunny France,’ that’s the message we’re getting from Vangheluwe …
For the love of God, how can such a person ever have been a bishop? His place is not in an abbey in France, but in a cell in a psychiatric establisment.”
Writing in the French-language newspaper Le Soir, Jurek Kuczkiewicz wonders why the disgraced prelate was comfortably housed by the papal nuncio in Brussels before the Vatican announced its decision this week and hastily shipped him out of the country.
“As if the announcement of his punishment could obliterate the astonishing news that a pedophile was the nuncio’s guest while awaiting a ruling from Belgian and Vatican legal authorities … the temporary hosting of a ‘lost sheep’ must have posed serious logistical and moral problems for the Catholic Church.
But surely there was a more appropriate lodging in between leaving him homeless — quite contrary to Christian charity — and housing him in a comfortable embassy protected by diplomatic immunity? Perhaps the Church hoped in this way to keep him under control. But one can’t help thinking if the nuncio wants to take in the unfortunate, there are many more worthy people sleeping on the streets.”
compiled by Araminta Wordsworth