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Rome Turns Its attention To Belgian Abuse Crisis

The Tablet (UK) by Tom Heneghan, 25 September 2010

POPE BENEDICT XVI shares Belgians’ concern over the sexual abuse by Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of his nephew, the Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi has said. Meanwhile, public animosity towards Vangheluwe is growing and two Belgian bishops, including Vangheluwe’s successor, have publicly questioned the value of mandatory clerical celibacy. “We understand the concern of Belgium’s society and Church about the gravity of the acts committed in the past by the ex-bishop … and his responsibility in this affair,” Fr Lombardi said in a statement distributed by the Belgian Church. “This concern is shared by the Pope and his aides.”

Vangheluwe resigned last April after admitting he had sexually abused his nephew over 13 years. His resignation prompted a wave of allegations of abuse against other priests and tarnished the reputation of Cardinal Godfried Danneels, after it emerged that he had tried to convince the nephew to remain silent.

Fr Lombardi said the decision to laicise the bishop, who is now living at a secret location, “belongs to the Pope and … it will certainly take time to get informed and think about this”. He added: “Any reduction to the lay state of the ex-bishop would have more of a symbolic than practical significance because he has already been excluded from ministry.”

Following publication of the Andriaenssens report on sexual abuse within the Belgian Church, which found that 13 victims of abusive priests had committed suicide, two bishops have called for the celibacy rule to be eased.

Bishop Jozef de Kesel, Vangheluwe’s successor in Bruges, said: “One should be able to say there are celibate priests, but that people for whom celibacy is impossible should also have the opportunity to become priests.”

Bishop Patrick Hoogmartens of Hasselt added that he could well imagine married men (viri probati) being priests. Noting the contributions of married deacons to his diocese, he said: “I know from experience that they can do quite good work.”

A third bishop, Johan Bonny of Antwerp, joined the call for a debate on celibacy on Monday. Brussels Archbishop Léonard’s spokesman, Jurgen Mettepenningen, told the De Standaard daily that celibacy and sexual abuse of children were separate issues. The archbishop considered care of abuse victims the main priority for the Church now, and any debate on celibacy should be conducted on a worldwide level, not just in Belgium, and initiated by Rome, Mr Mettepenningen said.

In a telling  indication of the national mood, a book being written to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the former bishop’s high school has scrapped plans for a chapter about him. And according to Flemish-language media, Bruges public prosecutors are investigating reports of a second male relative said to have been abused by the former bishop.

Meanwhile, the Justice Minister Stefaan De Clerck has come in for criticism from the Belgian parliament’s justice committee for “ignoring the separation of Church and State” by allowing the Church’s abuse commission to handle most complaints about predator priests. Mr De Clerck said the justice authorities should take precedence in any inquiry but he did not want to exclude the Church from the process. Belgium has a caretaker government following its inconclusive June election, and political parties have been unable agree on how to investigate the scandal.