Just 'a Game': Outrage as Shamed Belgian Priest Downplays Child Abuse

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Peter Maenhoudt / AP

Former Bishop of Bruges Roger Vangheluwe is seen in this 2007 photo. The Vatican has sanctioned Vangheluwe, who resigned last year after admitting he had sexually abused his nephew

The Belgian Catholic Church must have felt it hit a nadir last year when it had to face harrowing revelations of rampant child sex abuse among its priesthood. However, the church's reputation is now at a new low, thanks to the ill-judged comments of the disgraced former Bishop of Bruges, who in April 2010 admitted to abusing his nephew. Belgians have been left in open-mouthed disbelief after the airing of a TV interview with Roger Vangheluwe in which he glossed over his history of abusing children.

Speaking on Belgian television on Thursday evening, April 14, Vangheluwe, 74, said he had in fact abused a second nephew as well. That would have been shocking enough: last year, when Vangheluwe initially owned up to the abuse — and stepped down as bishop — the move unleashed a flood of revelations by other victims of abuse in the church.

But it was no tearful confession that Belgians witnessed on Thursday. Looking relaxed and sometimes smiling, Vangheluwe described the sexual abuse as no more than "a little piece of intimacy." While he claimed to recognize that he had done wrong and said he often went to confession about it, Vangheluwe played down his actions. "I had the strong impression that my nephew didn't mind at all. On the contrary. It was not brutal sex. I never used bodily, physical violence," he said. The abuse of his first nephew, in the 1970s and '80s, he said, "started as, I would call it, a game." At the time, the boy was just 5, and the abuse would last 13 years. The abuse of the second nephew, he said, was "merely over a year." Despite this, Vangheluwe insisted, "I don't have the impression at all that I am a pedophile." Following the interview, the first nephew said through his lawyer that he did not want to comment; the identity of the second nephew is not yet known.

The interview drew almost immediate rebuke. Prime Minister Yves Leterme said Vangheluwe's remarks "go beyond the boundary of what is acceptable" and called on the Catholic Church to "assume its responsibilities." Vice Prime Minister Laurette Onkelinx said the interview was "disgusting," adding that Vangheluwe "showed a complete disdain for his victims." Justice Minister Stefaan De Clerck urged the Vatican to punish the former bishop. "It is a slap in the face of his victims and all victims," he said. And Carina Van Cauter, vice chair of the parliamentary committee investigating sexual abuse, said Vangheluwe "tried to turn his victims into culprits. He throws salt in their wounds."

The church also responded fiercely, with bishops lining up to condemn Vangheluwe. The Bishop of Ghent, Luc Van Looy, said he was "ashamed, shocked, upset and angry. By trivializing the abuse, Vangheluwe is deepening the indescribable suffering of victims." Josef De Kesel, Vangheluwe's successor as Bishop of Bruges, said, "It's unbelievable, and so damaging for all involved — firstly the victims, but also us, our credibility."

Victims groups reacted with weary disgust. "I was angry but not surprised," says Linda Opdebeeck, president of the support group Human Rights in the Church. "[Vangheluwe] is just like the monk who abused me 30 years ago and never accepted any responsibility. Vangheluwe will never recognize what he did, never understand the gravity of his actions, even though it was legal rape."

Gabriel Ringlet, a priest and influential Catholic figure in Belgium, says that while Vangheluwe's interview was repulsive, it also risks undermining the wider campaign against child abuse. "If we focus too much on him, we might forget the bigger problems," says Ringlet, who has urged the church to issue an unequivocal apology, punish the pedophiles and compensate victims. "The pedophilia is linked to the church's authority. When the priest suggests his abuse is part of his holy function, it is difficult for a child or parishioner to denounce him."

Despite his admission, Vangheluwe does not face criminal prosecution, because the abuses occurred decades ago, beyond Belgium's statute of limitations for sex abuse. The Vatican had sent the former bishop to an abbey in the Loire valley in France weeks ago for "spiritual and psychological treatment" in the wake of last year's abuse admission. It's not known whether the church knew of his second victim. Vangheluwe could be stripped of his priesthood, but that was also an option following his first abuse confession — and it still hasn't happened.

Nor has there been much progress in Belgium over the past year when it comes to abuse by clergy. As the scandal has escalated, the head of the Belgian Church, Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, has been reluctant to take firm action beyond a vague expression of regret. Léonard, an archconservative who frequently conducts mass in Latin, is widely seen as being out of touch with his flock. Two weeks ago, he was targeted by custard-pie-throwing activists angry over his description of AIDS as a kind of "intrinsic justice" punishing gays.

Dirk Jacobs, a sociology professor at Brussels Free University, says the Vatican must act forcefully now if it wants to salvage some of its credibility and moral authority in Belgium and abroad. "But it might still be seen as too little, too late," Jacobs says. "The image we have is of the church as an institution of power, foremost worried about its reputation, disconnected from the real world and with a twisted view of sexuality." However, there is little indication that the Vatican is ready for an image overhaul. And one year after he resigned in disgrace, Roger Vangheluwe appears — like the Vatican — to be in denial about the problem.