Jozef De Kesel returns to Brussels, but now as archbishop

In the end, Pope Francis decided to stick to the silent agreement: after a Walloon archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels comes a Flemish one. Succeeding Archbishop André-Joseph, who offered his resignation upon his 75th birthday in May, is Msgr. Jozef De Kesel, until today the Bishop of Bruges, where he succeeded the disgraced Roger Vangheluwe in 2010. Before coming to Bruges, Archbishop-elect De Kesel was auxiliary bishop of Mechelen-Brussels from 2002 to 2010.

de kesel

The new of Bishop De Kesel’s appointment broke widely in Belgian media yesterday afternoon, but it is only official now, upon the announcement in Mechelen-Brussels and later in Rome.

Bishop Jozef De Kesel is 68, which places him among the older active bishops of Belgium. A long ministry like that of Cardinal Godfried Danneels will not be forthcoming then. As the 24th archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels (before 1961 simply Mechelen), Archbishop De Kesel will lead the archdiocese with its three auxiliary bishops, Jean-Luc Hudsyn, Léon Lemmens (who has been tipped to succeed De Kesel in Bruges) and Jean Kockerols.


Bishop De Kesel was most recently in the news because he journeyed to northern Iraq on a mission of solidarity with Tournai’s Bishop Guy Harpigny and Bishop Lemmens, an experience that greatly moved him. He likened it to visiting sick relatives, which is what you do to express your sympathy and concern. Back home in Bruges, Bishop De Kesel began calling on parishes to make housing available for refugees.

de kesel harpigny iraq

^Archbishop-elect De Kesel and Bishop Harpigny in Iraq

Dealing with abuse

Bishop de Kesel has also had to deal with priests who have been guilty of abuse, like more than a few of his colleagues. Through his diocese, Bishop De Kesel has been very open about those dealings, though. In 2014 he appointed a priest who had been found guilty of abuse by a court of law, although any punishment was waived. This priest later chose not to accept the appointment. In recent weeks, Bishop De Kesel had to suspend a priest after he returned to Brazil against previous agreements. He also contacted Brazilian Archbishop Murillo Krieger to warn him against this priest.

First choice

Earlier this year, it became clear that Bishop De Kesel was the first choice to succeed Cardinal Danneels, but that Pope Benedict XVI overrode this choice, as he has the right to, and appointed Archbishop Léonard.

Criticism and views

Bishop De Kesel, while largely popular among faithful in Belgium and abroad, is not without criticism. In 2010 he said he hoped that women could one day be priests, although in 2012 he underlined that the Church is unable to do so. He also believes celibacy for priests should be optional, but also says that this a decision that the Church as a whole should make. No chance of married priests (barring converts or the like) in Brussels anytime soon, then.

While he is a practical man, not blind to the realities around him, the new archbishop does not think that modernisation of Church and priesthood is the answer to everything. In 2013 he said, “Modernising the Church will not mean that people will return.” He added, “More personnel will also not solve our problems. It goes far deeper. Filling as many positions as possible with lay people, or allowing priests to marry, means staying blind to the real problems.” He has a clear vision of the Church, saying in an interview on the occasion of his appointment as auxiliary bishop of Mechelen-Brussels in 2002: “The Church should not be a dictatorship, but neither should she degenerate into a half-hearted thing that denies its own values and visions.”

De Kesel or Bonny?

Some have suggested that Bishop De Kesel is a compromise choice, and that his time as archbishop is intended to prepare the way for Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp to succeed him and make the real changes int he archdiocese. Considering that Bishop Bonny will be 67 when Archbishop De Kesel retires (and will have only seven years left before his own retirement), and Pope Francis 87 (if he has not retired by then), this is exceedingly unlikely. A future Archbishop Bonny will have no more time to affect changes than Archbishop De Kesel has now.

bishop jozef de keselBiography

Jozef De Kesel was born in 1947 in Ghent and raised in Adegem, halfway between Ghent and Bruges. His father was the town’s mayor, and his uncle, Leo-Karel De Kesel, would be an auxiliary bishop of Ghent for almost three decades. In 1965 he entered seminary and he also studied at the Catholic University of Louvain. He studied theology at the Pontifical University Gregoriana in Rome and was ordained in 1972 by his uncle. In 1977 he became a doctor of theology. In the 1970s he worked as a teacher of religion at several schools, and in 1980 he was appointed as prefect and professor at the seminary in Ghent, teaching dogmatic and fundamental theology, a job he held until 1996. He also taught at the Catholic University of Louvain from 1989 to 1992, and since 1983 he was responsible for the formation of pastoral workers in the Diocese of Ghent. In 1992 he was appointed as episcopal vicar in charge of the whole of the theological education and formation of priests, deacons, religious and laity in the diocese. He also became a titular canon of the St. Bavo cathedral in Ghent. In 2002 he was appointed as auxiliary bishop of Mechelen-Brussels and titular bishop of Bulna. His episcopal motto was inspired by St. Augustine: “Vobiscum Christianus“. Bishop De Kesel was appointed as episcopal vicar for Brussels. In 2010, Archbishop Léonard transferred him to the Flemish Brabant/Mechelen pastoral area. Three months later, Bishop De Kesel was appointed as Bishop of Bruges.

In the Belgian Bishop’s Conference, Archbishop-elect De Kesel is responsible for the Interdiocesan Commission for Liturgical Pastoral Care, for the contacts with the religious, the interdiocesan commission for permanent deacons, the commission fro parish assistants, for bio-ethical questions, for the Interdiocesan Council for Culture, the National Commission for Pastoral Care in Tourism, and for the Union of Women Contemplatives.


Archbishop-elect will be installed in Mechelen’s cathedral of St. Rumbold on Saturday 12 December.

More to come…

Photo credit: [1] BELGA, [2] Kerknet

Disgraced second Bishop of Trondheim passes away

georg müllerAlmost a week ago, on Sunday 25 October, the second bishop of the Territorial Prelature of Trondheim, in Norway, passed away. Bishop Georg Müller was 64 and retired since 2009. He had lived in the community of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, also known as the Picpus Fathers, in Münster since 2012. He had entered that order in 1971 and was ordained for it in 1978, while studying at their college in Simpelveld, the Netherlands.

It was his own choice to serve the Church in Norway, where he arrived following the completion of his studies at the University of Münster in 1981. He was given immediate responsibility in 1983, when Bishop Gerhard Schwenzer was transferred to Oslo but stayed on as Apostolic Administrator of Trondheim until 1988. Fr. Muller became vicar general in 1984, cathedral administrator in 1986 and in 1988 he took over as Apostolic Administrator. In 1989 he was the host of Pope Saint John Paul II as the pontiff visited the Nordic countries. It took until 1997 for Msgr. Müller to be appointed as Bishop of Trondheim, an office he held until his retirement in 2009. Like most other Nordic dioceses, Trondheim experienced a period of growth at that time, mainly because of immigration, a trend that still continues. In his time as ordinary, Bishop Müller invited a number of religious orders to come to his prelature: Birgittine sisters in Trondheim, Cistercian sisters in Tautra, Missionary Servants of the Holy Trinity, a Filipine community, in Molde, and Cistercians monks from France in Munkeby.

Bishop Müller retired for unspecified reasons in 2009. A year later it became clear that he had resigned because of accusations of sexual abuse of a minor, about which Bishop Müller admitted his guilt when confronted about the matter by Bishop Anders Arborelius of Stockholm. The victim, at the time of the bishop’s retirement a man in his 30s, received the compensation he wished from the Church, and Bishop Müller was removed from all official duties in the Church. Prosecution in a court of law was not possible because of the statute of limitations on the crime. The year-long silence after Bishop Müller’s retirement was per the wish of the victim.

Bishop Müller underwent  therapy in Germany, and subsequently lived in his order’s general government in Rome. He moved to Münster in 2012. He suffered from unspecified health issues until his death.

Bishop Müller led the Church in Norway in the place where it once begun. It was once the Archdiocese of Nidaros, before the Reformation struck and the Church in Norway did not return in the public eye until 1843 and the once great archdiocese was resurrected as the mission “sui juris” of Central Norway. Only shortly before Father Müller’s arrival in the country, in 1979, did Central Norway become the Territorial Prelature of Trondheim. Bishop Müller is, for now at least, the last bishop of Trondheim. Upon his retirement in 2009, the bishop of Oslo, Msgr. Bernt Eidsvig, became Apostolic Administrator, and remains so until this day.

The funeral Mass for Bishop Müller will be offered on 4 November at the parish church in Werne, south of Münster, where he will also be buried. Bishop Czeslaw Kozon of Copenhagen will be the celebrant.

The fight against abuse – more than words and politics

global_nienstedtThose that were wondering if Pope Francis’ actions against sexual abuse in the Church would be limited to establishing tribunals and commissions are likely to change their minds today. After Bishop Robert Finn, two more American bishops saw their resignation accepted, resignations they tendered for failing to protect children under their ultimate responsibility. Archbishop John Nienstedt (pictured) and Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis were removed from office one week after new criminal proceedings were launched against the archdiocese. Neither bishop is himself guilty of abuse, it must be stressed, but they are investigated for their actions after a priest of the archdiocese, now laicised, was arrested and convicted for sexual abuse. He now serves a prison term.

The Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis will be administred by Archbishop Bernard Hebda, Coadjutor Archbishop of Newark, and the sole remaining auxiliary bishop, Msgr. Andrew Cozzens, who was appointed in 2013, well after the abuse case that resulted in today’s resignations.

Also today, the Holy See announced a starting date of the process against Mr. Józef Wesolowski, former archbishop and Apostolic Nuncio to the Dominican Republic, who has been charged with sexual abuse of minors while in Santo Domingo and the possession of child porn when he had returned to Rome in 2013. He had his priestly faculties and titles removed in 2014, and the expectation that he will be convicted in the face of overwhelming evidence.

It appears that Pope Francis is not waiting for the establishment of the tribunal which can charge bishops with negligence in the face of abuse, but is removing bishops who have failed. We can’t know if the resignation of Archbishop Nienstedt and Bishop Piché was the result of their own deliberations or a response to the advice of others. Pope Francis, however, has been clear that bishops must be critical of themselves and take their responsibilities for their actions or inactions when faced with painful and difficult abuse cases.

As a citizen of Vatican City, Mr. Wesolowski can be tried in that country (in close cooperation with the Dominican Republic authorities), while Archbishop Nienstedt and Bishop Piché will likely remain under investigation by American authorities as part of the larger investigation into the conduct of the archdiocese.

Archbishop Léonard at 75, time to look back and ahead.

léonardToday Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard marks his 75th birthday, and his letter of resignation will be delivered to the desk of Archbishop Giacinto Berloco, the Apostolic Nuncio to Belgium, who will forward it to Rome. All this is foreseen in canon law, but the immediate outcome has several options.

The resignation may be accepted immediately, after which a Diocesan Administrator will have to be appointed. The resignation may als be postponed for either a set or undefined period. In any case, the Holy See press office bulletins, which announce retirement and new appointments, will be enthusiastically scrutinised.

In any case, the relatively short period that Archbishop Léonard occupied the seat of Saint Rumbold is coming to an end. It is a time of looking back, as well as looking ahead. Back at the past five years and ahead to whomever the new archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels may be.

Archbishop Léonard was appointed at roughly the same time that I started this blog, and my translation of an earlier interview with him caused one of the first peaks in visitors here. Ever since his appointment, he was considered a likely candidate to be made a cardinal, which however never happened. But this never caused him grief.

One of the first major obstacles on his path was the revelation that the former bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, had been guilty of sexual abuse. As president of the Belgian Bishops’ Conference, all eyes were on Archbishop Léonard. Shortly afterwards, the archbishop went to Rome for the ad limina visit. In an interview he discussed the Vangheluwe case, as well as education and the shortage of priests. Shortly before his own retirement, the archbishop was judged guilty of negligence in a case of sexual abuse.

201104070920-1_andre-leonard-veegt-taart-weg-en-vervolgt-voordracht-About education, he later had to correct misunderstandings about his comments, something that would mark the following years as well. Notable were his comments about AIDS as a form of immanent justice. This seeming difficulty in understanding between archbishop and media even led to the archbishop’s spokesman resigning. Among many clergy and faithful, even politicians, Archbishop Léonard was not popular because of his clear voice and these misrepresentations, although in pastoral contexts he was widely loved, for example when 22 Belgian children died in a coach crash in Switzerland. Adversity, however, sometimes had the upper hand, as the archbishop was the recipient of pies (above right), pizza, slaps and water to his face. These attacks never aroused anger in him, however. On the contrary. Following that final assault, Archbishop Léonard wrote a very kind letter to all who had expressed support for him.

In Brussels, Archbishop Léonard was soon faced with the need for new bishops, as his auxiliaries left to Namur and Bruges. In 2011 he recieved three new auxiliary bishops.

In 2012, Archbishop Léonard led his diocese in a new evangelisation of cities, one of the first porjects of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelisation.

Archbishop Léonard took part on two Synod of Bishops assemblies, where he spoke on the reality of evil, as well as the role of women in the Church. In the 2012 Synod he was a member of the Commission for the Message.

Following the election of Pope Francis, Archbishop Léonard offered a Mass of thanksgiving in Brussels.

Last year, Archbishop Lëonard started looking ahead to the future, even clearing up some misconceptions about his upcoming retirement.

ordination léonard fraternity of the holy apostlesAfter his retirement, and contrary to his previously expressed wish to leave Brussels, Archbishop Léonard will live with the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles, a priestly fraternity which he founded in 2013 (at left, Archbishop Léonard is seen ordaining one of the fraternity’s priests in October of 2014). Priests from this fraternity, inspired by Fr. Michel-Marie Zanotti-Sorkine, are currently entrusted with the pastoral care of two parishes in Brussels. Whether this will be a temporary arrangement or otherwise, remains to be seen.

As for the future for Mechelen-Brussels, we can only guess. But there are some possibilities we may investigate. The metropolitan see of Mechelen has been held in turn by archbishops from the Flemish and Walloon parts of Belgium. While Pope Francis, who makes the final appointment, is probably not one to be bothered overly much by such considerations, preferring to choose the best man for the job, whether he be from Flanders of Wallonia, it is a sensitive issue in Belgium. I expect therefore that the new archbishop will come from one of the Flemish dioceses or that part of the archdiocese which lies in Flanders. Archbishop Léonard, after all, is a Walloon, and his predecessor, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, hails from Flanders.

kockerolsThe Holy Father may choose to elevate one of the suffragan bishops of Flanders. These are Bishop Jozef de Kesel of Bruges, Luc van Looy of Ghent, Johan Bonny of Antwerp and Patrick Hoogmartens of Hasselt. Bishop Léon Lemmens, auxiliary bishop for the Flemish part of Mechelen-Brussels, and Jean Kockerols, auxiliary for Brussels (pictured at right), may also be added to this group. At 73, Bishop van Looy is too close to his own retirement to be a likely choice. The others are between 56 and 67, so their age is no issue. Three bishops (De Kesel, Lemmens and Kockerols) know the archdiocese well, as they serve or have served as auxiliary bishops in it. There are also bishops who are no strangers to Rome or to the Pope personally. Bishop van Looy accompanied the young people of Verse Vis when they interviewed the Pope last year. Bishop Lemmens worked in Rome before being appointed as auxiliary bishop and Bishop Kockerols is internationally active as one of the vice-presidents of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE). Bishop Bonny had made headlines for himself in relation to the Synod of Bishops, so he will also not be unknown in Rome. The only relatively unknown bishop is Patrick Hoogmartens, but he, at least, has a motto that should appeal to the current papacy: “Non ut iudicet, sed ut salvetur” (Not to judge, but to save, John 3:17).

Or the Pope may decide to do something that hasn’t happened since 1925: appoint a priest who has not yet been a bishop anywhere else to become the new archbishop. Whoever he may turn out to be, he will facing a stiff task as a shepherd in an increasingly secular environment. It may be hoped that he will be both pastorally sensitive and doctrinally clear.

léonard coat of armsArchbishop Léonard’s coat of arms

A month before retirement, Archbishop Léonard in court

léonardA court in Liège has convicted Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard of negligence in the face of complaints against an abusive priest, made known to him when he was bishop of Namur in the 1990s. The victim intially kept quiet about the years of sexual abuse he suffered, wanting to be a priest himself, but eventually did inform the Catholic Church. He had a long conversation with then-Bishop André-Mutien Léonard, but saw little follow-up. The priest in question was merely transferred. Only in 2001 did the victim go to court over the abuse and was eventually awarded 37,000 euros in damages, to be paid by the abusive priest. Archbishop Léonard was also charged in 2013, but not convicted because he wasn’t a bishop yet when the abuse took place and the victim had already been awarded damages. A subsequent appeal was successful, and Archbishop Léonard has now been ordered to pay an additional 10,000 euros in damages for having underestimated the seriousness of the abuse. Five percent of the victim’s disability is due to the archbishop’s inaction, the court judged.

This is the first time that a bishop in Belgium has been convicted for failing to act against sexual abuse by clergy. This case is all the more noticeable in light of the recent removal of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, two years after he was convicted of similarly failing to act (Bishop Finn waited overly long before reporting a priest who possessed child porn to the authorities). Archbishop Léonard will most likely not be facing such a removal as he turns 75 next month and will send his letter of resignation to the Holy Father. Another important difference in the two cases is that Archbishop Léonard was dealing with crimes which took place when the period of limitation had already ended.

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, established by Pope Francis in March of 2014, has recently been emphasising the accountability of bishops, and it may be expected that they will want to take a close look at this case. Ever since the sexual abuse crisis broke, and especially in the last five years, the Church does not hold to periods of limitation when it comes to sexual abuse by clergy.

I have no doubt that the archbishop will accept the verdict, nor do I suspect any ill will in his transfer of the abusive priest, but it is clear that it was a wrong decision (although we don’t know if the priest went on abusing elsewhere, that is not a risk that should ever be taken). And wrong decisions also have their consequences.

A cardinal in name alone

cardinal o'brienPope Francis yesterday took the unusual and rare step of remoing a cardinal’s rights and duties, and on the cardinal’s own request. Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien, retired archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh asked for the removal of all his rights and duties in the wake of a report about the accusations of sexual abuse against him which appeared several years ago. In 2013 this was also reason for him to retire as archbishop and not to attend the conclave that elected Pope Francis.

There was some confusion as to whether Cardinal O’Brien was still a cardinal, but it would appear that he remains one by name only. He no longer has any duties in the Curia (he was a member of the Pontifical Councils for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples; for Social Communications; and for the Family), including the right to attend and vote in future conclaves (although, being 77, the chances of Cardinal O’Brien taking part in the election of a new Pope were slim anyway), or to attend any future consistories. also indicates that he has lost his title church, Santi Gioacchino ed Anna al Tuscolano.

Cardinal O’Brien is not the first cardinal to have lost his rights and priviles that come with the red hat, although it hasn’t happened since 1911, when French Cardinal Louis Billot, who asked Pope Pius IX to accept his resignation as cardinal, allegedly since he supported the nationalist Action Française movement, which the Pope had condemned.

Other cardinals resigned their titles for rather different reasons. Intitially, back in the fifteenth century, a number of pseudocardinals (cardinals created by a pope who was not accepted as legitimate) lost heir titles for supporting an antipope. Other cardinals wanted to lead a simple life of solitude, mostly in a monastery or other form of religious life. The most recent example of this is Carlo Odescalchi, who resigned because he wanted to enter the Jesuit Order. He did so in 1838, three years before his death.

A more secular reason for cardinals to resign was, since they often came from the nobility, the fact that their families had no male heirs. In 1807, Cardinal Marino Carafa di Belvedere resigned for this reason, became the prince of Acquaviva and married.

Political reasons could also lead to cardinals resigning. In 1788, Pope Pius VI made Étienne-Charles de Loménie de Brienne a cardinal, but the latter never went to Rome to accept his red hat and title. He later accepted the terms imposed by the French revolutionairy government. The Pope severely rebuked him for his disloyalty, after which Cardinal de Loménie de Brienne resigned. In 1793 he was jailed, and he renounced his faith for fear of his own safety.

Other cardinal resigned or even refused to be created cardinal since they considered themselves unworthy of the honour or simply too old.

The reasons for cardinals to resign have been varied, but Cardinal O’Brien’s case remains unique in that he has been allowed to keep his title, even if he has lost everything that comes with it.

Pope Francis’ letter – a call to action and cooperation

francisIt’s a fairly short, but also very clear, letter that Pope Francis released today, on the topic of sexual abuse of minors by clergy and other Church workers. In essence, it is both a repeat exercise to emphasise the Church’s dedication of rooting out sexual abuse (of both minors and vulnerable adults), and a call to the world’s bishops and religious superiors, anyone in charge of the Church’s major groupings of faithful, to work with the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. And that latter part is quite unique.

It may be assumed that the dicasteries of the Curia can expect the cooperation of the clergy and faithful of the Church, but we don’t usually get an express urging from the Pope to do so. It underlines how important the work of this Commission is. In a way, it is the next step in the fight: first, the abuse needed to be known and the local churches had to come to terms with the terrible things that happened in the past. Over time, they came to establish means and measures to bring perpetrators to justice and offer a listening ear and healing to the victims. And now those efforts have come together: the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors will have the final word in what the local churches need to do.

Cardinal-Sean-OMalleyThe Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors has seven members, a president and a secretary. The President is Seán Patrick Cardinal O’Malley (at right), the archbishop of Boston. Serving as secretary is Msgr. Robert Oliver, also a Bostonian. Both won much experience in dealing with the child abuse crisis as it broke in the United States, a prelude, it later turned out, to what would become known in other parts of the world. The members of the Commission come from various countries in all continents and include two survivors of sexual abuse: Marie Collins from Ireland and Peter Saunders from the United Kingdom. Other members are experts in psychology, social services, counselling, human trafficking, but also civil and canon law, religious life and theology.

My Dutch translation of Pope Francis’ letter is available here.