A bishop punished too mildly?

Almost a year after one of the biggest blows that the Catholic Church in Belgium had to take – the resignation of Bishop Roger Vangheluwe after he admitted having abused a minor – the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the steps to be taken against the former bishop of Bruges. As the statement issued by Papal Nuncio Archbishop Berloco, says:

“The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, qualified to judge the most serious offenses against morality, has investigated the case of Roger Vangheluwe. The Congregation has decided that Msgr. Vangheluwe, even though the offenses of sexual abuse committed against his nephew fall, according to the norms of canon law, under the statute of limitations, has to leave Belgium and has to undergo spiritual and psychological treatment for a period.”

In many circles this punishment is deemed to be very light, but I think it should be considered for what it is, and what it can be. The Catholic Church owns no prisons and can therefore not incarcerate criminals. And even if they could, Msgr. Vangheluwe could not be held under the terms of the law, as his crimes fall under the statute of limitations: canon and secular law agree that his crimes were committed too long ago for him to be punished now.

Even so, as the nuncio’s statement says, this is no reason to leave things be. The former bishop is not permitted to remain in his native country, where his family and friends reside. Instead, he is to go somewhere else, presumable where the Church can keep tabs on him easily, to undergo treatment. Not just psychological, but also spiritual. This may not seem like much, but it touches upon the very core of one’s identity.

The fact that Msgr. Vangheluwe remains a priest and bishop, even though he will not be permitted to exercise any pastoral or liturgical duties, plays a part in that. As Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp said yesterday: “If you liacise him, you outlaw him. He will go where he pleases. That means you can’t impose any sanctions, which you can do now, because he remains a priest and bishop.”

In short, Msgr. Vangheluwe’s punishment is not called for by law, but is morally just. It is also not a mild punishment, but a considered one, and one that falls within the options available to the Church. And this may not yet be the end of it. Belgium could call for the extradition of the Vangheluwe, which means that whole new chapter opens in the case.

EDIT: Catholic News Service now confirms that these steps are part of the ongoing investigation.


5 thoughts on “A bishop punished too mildly?”

  1. Indeed the punishment seems very light because people think only as prison or perhaps the death penalty as ‘adequate punishment’ for criminal (and if indeed they are, it is a whole debate in itself, mind you).

    Yet, one then must ask the question: “What can the Church do?”

    The Church nowadays can only apply canonical and spiritual punishment such as the so-called ‘defrocking’ or ‘excommunication’ and it cannot put bad priests into a ‘Church prison’ or ‘burn them at the stake’ as perhaps they could 1000 years ago (as inprisonment and burnings were still secular punishment even in the middle ages).

    If truly people want ‘hard physical justice’ then only the secular authorities can provide that these days.

    Besides… probably the Bishop will in a way still ‘go to prison’ as it will be most likely relegated to a monastery or similar religious institution to reflect his past evil deeds and hopefully he will be not free to roam around in leisure.

    1. That’s exactly my point. I think that people often create an artificial comparison between canon and secular law, wishing that the former be more like the latter. But both are different, they have separate qualifications and options at their disposal.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. Again, people are screaming their head off on matters they don’t know anything about. If he were to be tried before a secular court of law, there would be no case to answer for the prosecution due to the statute of limitations, so there would be no punishment at all. Also should be taken into consideration that he has already received some kind of punishment: his fall from grace as Belgium’s once most popular bishop, a position he was obviously enjoying (a bit too much for my taste). His (deserved) reduction to utter nothingness must have been a hard blow to him.

    1. That’s another point made by Bishop Bonny: the punishment of being essentially ‘banished’ after having led a major diocese for 25 years is not to be underestimated.

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