At 75, Liège’s bishop offers his resignation

Bishop Aloys Jousten of Liège has tendered his resignation to Pope Benedict XVI. He celebrated his 75th birthday on Friday, thus reaching the mandatory age on which bishops must offer their resignation to the Holy Father, formally requesting the appointment of a successor. The day of such an appointment may well be quite a while off since there is no rule that the pope must accept a resignation when he receives the request for it.

Bishop Jousten is Liège’s 91st bishop, part of a lineage that dates back to the early eighth century. As far as age is concerned, he is the most senior active bishop of Belgium.

Liège is the oldest diocese of Belgium, if we take it for the rightful successor to the suppressed dioceses of Maastricht and Tongeren. Established in 720, it was never suppressed, although it did lose and gain territory over the centuries. It is centered around the cathedral of Saint Paul and is home to three minor basilicas, the Marian shrine of Banneux and the former cathedral of the suppressed Diocese of Eupen-Malmedy, in which circumscription Bishop Jousten was born and worked as a priest and later dean before his appointment as Liège’s 91st bishop in 2001.

Under Bishop Jousten’s leadership, the Catholic population of the diocese remained steady at 68.4 %, although the number of priests dropped with about 100. The number of permanent deacons remained around 75.

Criminal or careless? Bishop Gijsen accused in Iceland

It is a story that not so much indicts him as a criminal mastermind or even a bishop with ill will against his accusers, but depicts him much more as a bishop in a strange land who relied too much on his local clergy. The investigation into the abuse history in Iceland’s Diocese of Reykjavík mentions the name of emeritus Bishop Joannes Gijsen several times, most notably in the case of a man who accuses him of covering up a case of sexual abuse by a priest.

A bit of investigative journalism by Dutch blogger Remco van Mulligen reveals facts that the regular media avoids (in favour of partial and suggestive reporting). He outlines the case which is detailed in the report by Icelandic commission which looked into the matter, and we learn that it relates to abuse committed years ago by a now deceased priest of the Diocese of Reykjavík. Bishop Gijsen’s predecessor, Bishop Alfred Jolson met with the victim, who handed him a sealed letter outlining the case, and although the bishop assured the man that he would make sure nothing similar would happen in the future, the letter was left in the diocesan archives. When Bishop Gijsen arrived in 1996 he was urged to pick up the case again. He did so, met with the victim and both agreed that the letter should be destroyed, since there was no clear indication of sexual abuse. All this, according to Bishop Gijsen’s written statement to the commission. There is no letter and the victim is no longer alive.

The sad fact is that the priest in question, who was involved in other abuse cases as well, had an unrivaled position of power within the Icelandic church. Since all of Reykjavík’s bishops have come from abroad (the last four bishops were from the Netherlands, the United States and Switzerland), they relied heavily upon the local clergy, at least to get to know the local situation. No priest was more relied upon, at least by Bishop Gijsen, than one Fr. Ágúst George. And he is now revealed as the main perpetrator of more than one case of sexual abuse.

As Van Mulligen writes:

“The Commission creates a picture of the priest George as someone who saw bishops come and go, and wasn’t concerned by anyone or anything. Gijsen, for example, urged George several times to create an administration of what happened in his school [George served as headmaster of a Church-owned primary school]. The priest assured him he would, but did not keep his word. Gijsen allowed this to happen.”

Whatever the reasons that Bishop Gijsen had for not insisting on further investigation of the claims (for this case was not the only one that he, or Bishop Jolson, neglected), it is clear that more should have been done. Now, under current Bishop Pierre Bürcher, the sad extent of the sexual abuse by Fr. George and physical abuse by school teacher Margét Müller becomes clear only now.

Coupled with the fact that much of the diocesan archives from the period that Gijsen was bishop in Roermond are missing, we get the picture that Bishop Gijsen may have had the right intentions, he lacked the firm proactive hand that should have been employed when the first rumours became clear. It also shows that bishops have the duty to get to know their diocese and take an active role in the running of it, but administratively and pastorally.