Belgium's Catholic Church Repents — Too Little, Too Late?

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Yves Herman / Reuters

Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard leaves a press conference in Brussels on Sept. 13, 2010

The Bible repeats the mantra that only God can forgive sin, but in Belgium, the Roman Catholic Church is seeking absolution from its dwindling flock.

In the past few months, harrowing tales have emerged from almost every congregation in the country about priests raping and assaulting young parishioners. This week, after church investigators published an explosive report on 475 claims of sexual abuse over a 50-year time span, Belgium's Catholic establishment has tried to tackle the problem head-on.

Acknowledging the scale of the scandal, the head of the church in Belgium, Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, vowed to do more to help the victims, collaborate further with law enforcement and punish the abusers. "The report and the suffering it contains makes us shiver," Léonard said in Brussels on Monday, as he announced plans to create a center for "recognition, reconciliation and healing" within the church.

But abuse victims immediately slammed his pledges as vague and evasive. They pointed out that the church has yet to show how it will find and punish abusive priests. They also said there is no indication the church is ready to give the police and courts full rein in investigating and prosecuting abuse allegations within the clergy. Nor, they complained, has there been any public apology from the top ranks in the church hierarchy. Guy Harpigny, bishop of Tournai in western Belgium, revealed that this was because of fears that a mea culpa could open the floodgates to compensation claims. The nation's lawmakers are also unconvinced: MPs have called for a parliamentary inquiry into how the abuse could have become so widespread.

"The reforms are smoke and mirrors," says Barbara Blaine, president of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), who flew to Brussels to hear Léonard's announcement. "These are bare-minimum, begrudging steps. Hundreds or thousands were raped and sodomized by priests, and the church has been covering it up for decades. But nothing that the bishops have offered gives us any hope that they will change."

Léonard's comments came just days after the commission on sex abuse in the clergy published its findings, which included gut-wrenching detail on cases going back to the 1950s. The 200-page report, which came out on Sept. 10, includes anonymous testimonies from 124 victims describing their torment and their struggles with the trauma even decades later.

The commission, headed by respected child psychiatrist Peter Adriaenssens, found that most of the cases concerned young boys and teenagers, but there was one incident involving a 2-year-old boy. Assaults on boys usually ended by the time they were 14, but abuse of girls — who accounted for about a third of all the cases — sometimes continued into adulthood, the report found. About half of the abusers have died, and 13 victims are known to have committed suicide. While Adriaenssens said there was no evidence of a systematic cover-up of abuse, he was critical of the church's failure to respond to complaints by victims.

The bulk of the revelations in Belgium were triggered by an especially shocking case involving the veteran bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, who resigned in April after admitting to raping his own nephew in the years between 1973 and 1986. Vangheluwe's confession came just before his nephew was expected to go public, and that appears to have motivated other abuse victims to come forward and contact Adriaenssens' commission.

At the same time, the church seemed to confirm widespread suspicions of a cover-up when Léonard's predecessor, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, was caught on tape urging Vangheluwe's victim to keep quiet. As for Vangheluwe, he is still part of the priesthood and is staying in a monastery near Bruges. The Vatican — which has the ultimate power to defrock bishops — has yet to impose any disciplinary measures on him.

All these signs point to a dysfunctional organization, says Gabriel Ringlet, a priest and influential Catholic figure in Belgium. "The church would like to suggest the abusers are perverts and deviants, and can be found in any walk of life," he says. "But a major problem is the church itself. It has stunted teachings on sex. And the education for priests has become far too cloistered, dealing only with religious issues, when they need a broader view of life. In my time in the seminary, women could visit our rooms at 11 at night."

Ringlet suggests the church's inability to relate to real-life concerns partly explains its fading influence. While three-quarters of Belgians describe themselves as Catholic, churchgoing has slipped drastically in recent decades: 42.9% of Catholics said they attended Sunday Mass in 1967, but that figure plummeted to 7% by 2006.

And the recent rash of awful headlines is only likely to speed the decline. Léonard faces a gargantuan task in rebuilding confidence in the church, but after so many broken promises and so much shattered trust, many Belgians wonder if this is too little, too late.