I have one or two things to explain to you…

The wave of very negative responses to what people identify as ‘my words’ has undoubtedly affected some of you very strongly. Maybe some of those indignant responses were yours… I myself would respond strongly to those ‘words’ as they were presented to you.

From a raft of other possibilities, the media have highlighted three scandalous ‘statements’:

  1. one concerning AIDS, which I am said to have suggested as a just punishment from heaven for those people who committed certain daring sexual actions;
  2. one concerning homosexuals who I am said to have branded as abnormal beings;
  3. one concerning priests and religious who are guilty of serious sexual abuse, whom I am said to have wanted to protect from legal procedures if they were old or ill.

Let us consider these three grievances one by one.

AIDS: A deserved divine punishment?

The press got much excited about my ‘declarations’ about AIDS. In truth I made not a single recent ‘declaration’ about this subject! A few days ago nothing but the Dutch translation (Mgr. Léonard. Gesprekken, Lannoo) was published of a work by Louis Mathoux, which appeared four years ago in French with the title ‘Monseigneur Léonard. Entretiens avec Louis Mathoux’, with Editions Mols in Brussels. This book was discussed in a few newspapers at them time, without causing the least bit of commotion. But on the very day of its publication in Dutch a wave of media attention developed concerning pages 173 and 174 (Dutch edition) of this book.

I’ll explain further. In a book of conversation the person interviewed is cruelly dependent of the concerns, even obsessions of the one interviewing him. In my last answer published in the French original (page 340) I said about this, teasingly, that I thanked my ‘interviewer’ for his interested, even if he had asked my little about what truly concerns the heart of my life and my Christian faith. I rarely speak spontaneously about these topics, but decency leads me to answer the questions presented to me…

So I repeat that I made not a single ‘declaration’ about AIDS. In 2005 (the time of the interviews) I simply answered the a question and my answer then was recently partially quoted by the press. The question was: “What do you think about AIDS? Do you consider the disease as a punishment from God for the sexual revolution?” It is most elucidating to read the answer I gave on pages 173 and 174 (243-244 in the French edition). I will summarise it here, but first I will outline the context of the question.

It was about whether the outbreak of this disease was a divine punishment. It most certainly concerned here the very first spread of AIDS among people. In this context there was no mention of contagion through blood transfusions or drug needles and even less of a contagion of a child by the mother!

Although the interviewer would perhaps have been happy (I wouldn’t know) if I had said that AIDS was a punishment from God, I started with emphasising that I never, in any way, reason in such terms and I do not consider in any way AIDS as a divine punishment. But because the journalist, because of the nature of his question, seemed attached to this category of ‘punishment’ I added to that that one ‘could perhaps’ ‘at most’ assume that the very first spread of this disease was a sign of ‘a sort of’ ‘immanent justice’. So three reservations (the expressions in parentheses) to present this classical concept of ‘immanent justice’.

I immediately admit that this expression is not familiar to everyone. But when answering questions from a journalist, you are answering a person who is, by definition, educated, who works with words from morning to night and from night to morning and so knows their definitions perfectly. The concept of ‘immanent justice’ was, by the way, intended precisely to exclude any though of ‘punishment’ from above our outside. That is what the adjective ‘immanent’ means, namely ‘inherent to the case itself’ (from the Latin manere in = ‘to remain within’), without any need to invoke an external or ‘transcendent’ cause. So if there was any ‘justice’, it would be related to this expression, and absolutely not to any divine or human form of ‘justice’, but on that which comes from the nature itself of the actions being committed. To illustrate the sense of this expression (which I never use spontaneously, but which I used then, in 2005, in an attempot to enter into the thinking pattern of the one interviewing me), I gave several examples (which were very carefully not quoted). If, through irresponsible behaviour towards our environment, we mistreat the Earth, we may expect that the Earth will mistreat us in turn (climate change, rising waters, the disappearance of species, etc.). There is not a single proof of God needed for that; it comes forth from the very nature of our behaviour. Comparable to that, when a Secretary of Health decides that cigarette packs need to display: “tobacco may seriously damage your health”, it is not to imply that your chronic bronchitis or your lung cancer is the result of a divine punishment and even less that it comes from a decision of theirs, but simply that it is the consequence of your use of tobacco. So they implicitly present the concept of ‘immanent justice’. Besides, it is clear froma number of articles I have read that the very first spread of AIDS was at least partially because of contagion through various risky sexual practices (multiple partner, sodomy, etc.).

I honestly do not see what is outrageous about saying that our poluting habits may some day come back to hurt us ecologically, or to warn that an excessive use of alcohol can damage our brains or liver, or to assume that HIV contaminations initially were partially connected to risky sexual habits.

But, so they tell me, in this way you stigmatise and discriminate AIDS sufferers! It would have been useful if the readers who reached page 174 of the book would have also read age 175 (page 245 in the French edition), where I explicitly say that AIDS sufferers should never be the subjects of discrimination! Since when do the warnings against the damage caused by tobacco give cause to discriminate against smokers? The very same goes for the AIDS problem.

Homosexuals: abnormal?

In the past i has already been tried to put the monstrous words in my mouth that homosexuals are abnormal or ill! Several times I have already given explanation about this issue (which I almost never spontaneously discuss, but only in response to questions asked me), so I will keep it short. From a philosophical point of view I am of the opinion that homosexual urges and practices are not in conformity with objective sexual logic. This sexual logic (vegetable, animal and also human) exists in ‘diversification’ and, in a certain way, to ‘separate’ the male from the female so that they can complement each other. That, by the way, is the meaning of the word ‘sex’, that very likely comes from the Latin secare, a verb that means ‘to cut’, ‘separate’. ‘Sexuality’ is the separation of the male and female with the intention that they may also unite again (in animals, through mating, and in humans, through the encounter of love) by means of an action (the sexual union) which allows the continuation of life. The philosophical problem that is homosexuality is therefore the fact that, in the case of this sexual orientation, the polarity between the male and female is cancelled out by aiming for a person of the same sex.

Some express this by saying that a homosexual orientation is not ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’. Personally I avoid such language like the plague, unless the interviewer insists strongly. If need by, when one finds this truly necessary, one could dare to say that this orientation is not completely normal, in the sense that it is not in conformity with the objective logic of sexuality. But it is better to avoid this terminology because of its ambiguity. And any way, it allows no one to claim in any way that homosexual are ‘abnormal’, which would be very insulting.

To make the difference between a philosophical judgement about the ‘homosexual orientation’ and the painful discrimination toweards ‘homosexual persons’ understandable, I dared, in a television studio, to make a comparison between the attitude we assume towards anorexics and towards homosexual persons. Certain press agencies then made it appear that they believed I equalised homosexuality to anorexia and so considered homosexuals as people suffering from a disease!

But I never compared homosexuality to anorexia, and that would be completely pointless too. I simply compared the attitudes we assume or could assume towards person who experience these totally difference situations. Now! Most among us consider anorexia a development in appetite which does conform to the objective logic of this appetite, which aims to urge us to eat, so as to give us strength. But I hope that people who reason like this will never consider sufferers from anorexia as ‘abnormal’! Likewise, the fact that you consider homosexuality as not conforming to the objective logic of sexuality does not allow you to consider homosexuals as ‘abnormal’ or ‘sick’.

Elderly or ill pedophiles – protect from human justice?

In a recent television broadcast, one of my answers was presented as if I wished to protect priests or religious who were guilty of sexual abuse from civil legal procedures if they were ill or old. But does one really believe that I would be that incoherent when I unceasingly, since 23 April of this year, together with the other bishops, encouraged the victims to first go to the civil courts, since these are solely authorised to determine the truth and severity of the facts and to decide if the statute of limitations applies? All this belongs solely to the jurisdiction of the courts. And, to be clear, we decided not to create a sort of new ‘Adriaenssens Commission’, despite the great services this has done to many victims. We systematically refer the complaints to the civil authorities and the public institutions which are authorised to receive these kinds of complaints.

As far as the internal workings of the Church are concerned, we must in the mean time, on top of the civil procedures, create a file for every serious case of sexual abuse, which we have to send to Rome. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith insist that in every diocese concerned the bishops fulfills his duties. It decides on the canonical punishments (which is to say, those which are provided for in Church law) which have to be imposed on offenders (removal from every pastoral duty, prohibition to say Mass, loss of clerical status, etc.). Such a file has been sent to Rome concerning the former bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe. Pending the decision from Rome the bishop must obviously take every preventative measure possible for every case, assuming the facts seem evident, especially when there is a risk of repeat offenses.

In this context I was asked what steps I would like to take concerning often quite elderly priests who are guilty of such abuse. First and foremost I, of course, like always, emphasised that the victims must in the first place address the courts and/or authorised public institutions. But what if the facts are classified by the legal authorities as falling under the statute of limitations, or if the victims persistently refuse to be referred to court? Should I, when informed of such, often very old, facts impose a canonical punishment without even awaiting the judgement from Rome?

When I had to answer this delicate question, I still carried a very substantial experience with me in my heart, which I experienced recently. Victims had come to tell me their tragic story about priests who had abused them. The expressly told me: “We do not wish to go to court; it is in any way too late; we do not want this old and sick priest to be publicly pilloried; we only ask that you go and visit him and that he admits the evil he has done to us and under which still suffer every day.” So I then contacted these priests, old, ill, a bit confused but still able to express themselves. One of them told me, when I told him about my meeting with the victim: “I have never spoken to anyone about this black chapter in my life; I am glad that I can admit it to you now before I die.” I asked him if her would agree to meet the victim and finally admit to them them the evil he had done to her. He said “yes” to that and added that it would be a great relief to finally do this before his death. I again contacted the victims, who expressed their profound joy when they heard this and confirmed their intention to meet this priest. This deeply touched me. To tears.

I do not know if I did the right thing in acting thusly. But I think that in such cases, when civil procedures are no longer possible or desired by the victims, it is not unreasonable to judge that it would be better to allow the offender to admit his guilt before the people he abused, that this would perhaps be more useful for both than simple forbid this old priest from saying Mass with the chaplain of his rest house. In the cases that I personally experienced the victims expressly wanted no public punishment in extremis, no sort of final revenge. They most of all wanted the horrible truth of the facts to be finally admitted by the person who committed them.

*
**

These are the explanations I felt I had to give concerning the recent turmoil. It appears to me that I owed this explanation to those who I involuntarily hurt by being the subject of so much criticism misconception and misunderstanding. I so hope to have contributed to the peace of hearts. I repeat that I feel intense sympathy for all victims of abuse and I confirm my trust in the all priests, religious and lay people who conscientious do their duty. I see how fragile the Church is at this time and repeat my faith in and gratitude to all Christians. Thanks for their prayers and work, thanks to all those “who work day in, day out, on a more human and just world, who live the Gospel and contribute to building a Church with a future” (Declaration of the Belgian bishops on 19 May 2010). In all humility I desire that we may turn to the Risen Chris, heart of our faith, source of our hope, strength of our love.

Msgr. A.-J. Léonard
Archbishop of Malines-Brussels

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