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Belgium: Asks Vatican to punish Bishop for abuse

Publish Date: 16 Apr 2011
Source: The Wall Street Journal
By: John W. Miller and Stacey Meichtry

VT4/Reuters. Former Bishop Roger Vangheluwe during a television interview.

BRUSSELS—Belgium's acting Prime Minister Yves Leterme demanded that the Vatican immediately punish Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, who this week gave a television interview defending his sexual abuse of two nephews in the 1970s and 1980s.

Bishop Vangheluwe, 74, acknowledged in April 2010 that he sexually abused one of his nephews, in a revelation that rocked this small, predominantly Catholic country and saddled the Vatican with a public-relations nightmare.

In the interview broadcast Thursday on Belgian television, the bishop spoke about abusing two nephews, one of whom was six years old at the time. He said the rape was "not brutal sex," describing it instead as "intimacy."

The Catholic Church "needs to act," said Mr. Leterme, the prime minister. "This cannot go on."

Bishop Vangheluwe couldn't be reached for comment Friday.

The prime minister's direct admonition, coupled with the public brazenness of the cleric in defending his sexual abuse, poses one of the biggest diplomatic and public-relations challenges yet for the Vatican's handling of the decadelong sex- abuse scandal. Never before has so senior a church official talked so openly about committing pedophilia.

The Vatican has been heavily criticized by what many see as its sluggish handling of widespread sexual abuse in the Church's ranks. Last year, the Vatican toughened its laws against sexual abuse by priests, extending the statute of limitations that allow Pope Benedict XVI to formally strip a priest of his ministry. After Bishop Vangheluwe admitted the abuse, the Vatican suspended him from performing Mass and other public services.

The pope is, however, constrained in going much further by ancient rules that ordain bishops for life.

While the pope is, as the bishop of Rome, the Roman Catholic hierarchy's top official, he cannot easily tread heavily on the authority of bishops because he is a member of the college of bishops.

Removing a bishop, for example, is a theologically complicated process. In the past, when bishops publicly defied the pope's authority, the pope has taken the extreme measure of excommunication.

What steps, if any, the Vatican now takes with the former bishop of Bruges will test how far the Holy See is willing to go to safeguard its flagging credibility among many Catholics.

On Friday, Pope Benedict held his weekly meeting with Cardinal William Levada, head of the Vatican's office for disciplining abusive clerics, which is reviewing the case.

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi declined to comment on whether the bishop's latest remarks had been discussed at the meeting, but said the interview had "provoked astonishment and worry."

Rev. Lombardi added that the Holy See was "deeply evaluating" the bishop's case and "aware of its gravity."

A person familiar with the Vatican's proceedings against the bishop said: "Final judgment has not been passed, and this is not going to help his case."

In the interview to a Dutch-language television station in a program called "Flanders Today, Bishop Vangheluwe said the sex abuse "had nothing to do with sexuality."

Detailing his abuse of one nephew, who was six at the time, the bishop said he had shared "intimacy" and a "small relationship. I did not have the feeling that my nephew was against it, quite the contrary. It was not brutal sex." The bishop didn't give any details about his abuse of the second nephew.

"Of course I know that this was not good," Bishop Vangheluwe said. "I have confessed many times." He thought about killing himself, but decided not to because that would be "cowardly," and he was committed to remaining a bishop, he added during the interview.

Bishop Vangheluwe had asked to be interviewed by the television station in order to tell his side of the story, according to a spokesman for the Belgian Bishop's Conference, which groups bishops across the country.

Bishop Vangheluwe left Belgium over the weekend, to receive a psychiatric evaluation under Vatican orders. Belgian media reported that he was staying in a convent in France. A Vatican spokesman declined to comment on the bishop's whereabouts.

On Friday, political response to the bishop's comments was swift. "Rome needs to act," said economy minister Vincent Van Quickenborne, echoing the prime minister's words.

Belgium's bishops were also unanimous in condemning their colleague. "I regret that he showed so little empathy for the trauma experienced by the victims, and also for the pain the Church and society are going through now," said Patrick Hoogmartens, the bishop of Hasselt.

Observers of the Vatican's sex-abuse scandal say the Holy See is not only to blame. Civil legal systems also find themselves challenged to punish old crimes.

In Belgium, for example, there is a now a widespread debate over whether the state should continue giving bishops their state-funded pension, which is a bit under $50,000 a year.

The government must respect the rule of law, said Justice Minister Stefaan De Clersq. But he added the bishop's comments were "a slap in the face of all his victims and all victims."

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