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It’s been some two years since the Vangheluwe case broke, but recent research by the Catholic University of Louvain indicates that it has done no permanent damage to the Church in Belgium. Although there were some initial reactions – people leaving the Church, opting for fake de-baptisms, and a whole bunch of newspaper articles and other media comments – these have essentially all dried up.
Professor Didier Pollefeyt, professor of religious sciences, explains:
“When we will look back on this period later, there will be an undeniable impact visible in the first months. Compare it to a stock market crash: there will be a dip in the chart, but a collapse won’t materialise. The pedophilia scandal has done no lasting damage to the Church. People apparently disconnect the persons from the institute they are part of.”
Sociologist Jack Billiet agrees with this assessment:
“I indeed assume that faithful have left in that first period. These will in any case have been people who were already on the edge and in doubt. The truly faithful Catholics will immediately have made the distinction between the actions of Vangheluwe and the Church.”
Bert Claerhout, editor of Kerk & Leven, is a bit more careful:
“People no longer refer to it in letter and emails, at least. But I wouldn’t want to suggest that the Church has come out of this undamaged. I think that two years is still too early to turn the page. The engagement of many faithful has changed anyway.”
I find myself essentially agreeing with Mr. Claerhout, in that the abuse crisis, and specific cases like Vangheluwe, have changed people’s engagement with the Church. But that need not be a negative change. I think it has made people, laity and clergy alike, more aware, more informed, more critical perhaps. And that can be a good thing.
It is encouraging to find that cases as the one of Vangheluwe, serious and painful as they are, do not spell a mass exodus from the Church. People are able to distinguish the acts of one man from those of the Church as a whole. But what we should be aware of is that those same people can, and should, judge the Church on her response. Because that is not the singular action of an individual, but the reaction of the institution that the abuser remains a part of.It is that reaction that will determine how we will handle the fallout and future occurences of abuse. And that matters.
“I realise very well that a priest today is a walking question mark. I consciously wear a Roman collar. Older people are often surprised. Younger people recognise it mostly from movies. Because they can more easily recognise me as a priest, I can meet many people who entrust me with their questions.
Today we should, I think, in addition to the social engagement we have as Christians, dare to focus more on the vertical axis, on the spiritual: to bring people to God”.
Words from Belgian Father Filip Hacour in an interview for Kerk & Leven. Fr. Hacour is a group leader for seminarians at the John XXIII seminary in Louvain, and it seems that he gets that the priesthood is more than just being socially active in a parish.