Belgian bishops outline future plans

Archbishop Léonard, Bishop Harpigny and Bishop Bonny at this morning's press conference

In a press conference earlier today, Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, of Malines-Brussels, together with Bishops Johan Bonny (Antwerp) and Guy Harpigny (Tournai), outlined the new plans of the Belgian bishops to deal with the ongoing abuse crisis. Since the Committee headed by Prof. Peter Adriaenssens stepped down in June, after all their files had been seized in an illegal police raid, the bishops have been working to revitalise their efforts the come clean with the horrors of the past decades and to offer recognition and healing to the victims.

A Dutch report on the press conference, together with a link to the press statement as read by Bishop Bonny, may be found here. A translation of that statement, which outlines the future plans, is available here.

Cucumber time

Apart from the chaos in Belgium not a whole is happening in the Church. It must be summer soon, maybe an early silly season, which we in Dutch call ‘komkommertijd’ (‘cucumber time’), but that’s usually in August.

So in the mean time we’ll have to make do with what’s available. I have refrained from writing much about the Belgian situation, serious though it is. There are many Catholic blogs and news outlets which devote much space to the desecration of the graves of two cardinals, the resignation of Prof. Peter Adriaenssens as head of the abuse commission (citing betrayal of the victims’ trust and agreements between the commission and Justice) and strong words of criticism from both Cardinal Bertone and Pope Benedict XVI at the address of the Belgian magistrate who ordered the search (Cardinal Bertone said that this situation has no precedent, not even in formerly Communist countries). I don’t think that I have much to add to that.

In the Church in the Netherlands there is also not much out of the ordinary going on (at least not much I am at liberty to discuss). Only the appointment of a new chief editor of Katholiek Nieuwsblad has certain bloggers in an uproar, but that’s par of the course for them. Nothing out of the ordinary there either, then.

So, quiet time. Time to enjoy the summer outside (or inside, what with the World Cup going on…).

A reasonable overhaul

Yesterday’s police intervention in the Archdiocese of Malines-Brussels now looks to have been excessively forceful. Not only didn’t the police find any ‘held back paedophilia files’, but in order to do that, they detained all Belgian bishops for nine hours. The bishops had gathered for their monthly meeting. Together with the personnel they were held in one room, forced to surrender their mobile phones and other communication equipment. Although the bishops have stated to have full confidence in the Justice Department, which is why they cooperated fully, to me this sounds as if the bishops are already considered criminals. The only thing lacking is evidence. A very worrying development.

But this, together with the disruptions in the German Diocese of Augsburg, where Bishop Mixa has now accepted his resignation and promised not to challenge it again, is what we can expect more of in the near future. The abuse crisis can lead to nothing else but a full overhaul of everything that helped in covering up the crimes. And that will mean resignations, police investigations and the like. But, as in all things, these need good reason and agreements between all parties to have full effect. If one party does not agree with a bishop’s resignation, we get an Augsburgian situation. If the Justice department ignores agreements made and decides to investigate cases which are many years old and thus subject to the statute of limitations, we get Belgian situations.

A major overhaul, with all the discomfort and chaos it entails, is a simple necessity. But it must be done right to have full effect. And that’s still not happening everywhere.

Translation of the press statement from the bishops, which I linked to above:

“The bishops of Belgium were present in the Archbishop’s house around 10:15 this morning, Thursday 24 June 2010, for the monthly meeting of the Bishops’ Conference. A short while later, around 10:30, members of the Justice department and police officers arrived with a search warrant. At the basis of this are said to have been complaints of sexual abuse within the territory of the archdiocese. More explanation was not given to those present, but immediately all documents and mobile phones were confiscated. No one was allowed to leave the building. Only at 19:30 was that lifted.

Everyone, both the members of the Bishops’ Conference and the personnel of the archdiocese, was interrogated. That was not automatically a pleasant experience, but everything was handled correctly. The bishops have always said that they have full confidence in the courts and their work. They underwent the search of this morning with the same confidence and that is also the reason why they will refrain from any comment at this time.

On the other hand, with Prof. Peter Adriaenssens, chairman of the ‘Committee for the investigation of sexual abuse in the framework of a pastoral relation’, they regret that all the files of the committee were seized during another search. This goes against the right on confidentiality which the victims who have contacted the committee have. An action like this seriously affects the necessary and exemplary work of the committee.”

Abuse committee in Belgium now obsolete?

That’s a serious question being asked by chairman Peter Adriaenssens, following police raids in the offices of the Archdiocese of Malines-Brussels, the cathedral of St. Rombout, the home of Cardinal Danneels and also the offices of the committee which is investigating abuse cases in the Church in Belgium. That committee, Adriaenssens explained, deals with old cases, some 450 of them, which fall under the statute of limitations. Current cases, which may still be investigated by the police and handled by the courts, are subject of an agreement between the committee and the Justice Department, and will be handled by the latter. Why the police then saw it fit to seize the 450 files of cases they can’t do anything about, is a question.

It certainly seems to make Addriaensens’ work obsolete. His committee will meet on Monday to decide of they’ll dissolve.

The chairman says he fears for the privacy of victims and offenders, many of whom have expressly requested protection of their report and data.

All this seems like a serious stab in the back. Justice and the Church in Belgium had agreements that said that current cases be dealt with Justice, while older cases which fall under the statute of limitations will be investigated by Addriaenssens and colleagues. That way the Church took her responsibility in clearing up the crimes committed in the past and bringing offenders to justice. That has now become impossible. All the work that the committee has done has been taken from them, and much related information has similarly been seized from the archdiocese and Cardinal Danneels’ personal effects.

Justice has merely declared they are looking for evidence that will fit into a recently opened case file which was opened after ‘a declaration of old facts’. Whatever that may mean, exactly.

Translation of statements about the resignation of the bishop of Bruges

The two most important statements relating to the resignation of Msgr. Vangheluwe, former bishop of Bruges, those by Msgr. Vangheluwe himself and the one by Archbishop Léonard, are available in English via the Vatican Information Service.

The text by Bishop Harpigny describes the procedures followed by him and the commission that deals with sexual abuse cases.

Professor Peter Adriaenssens, chairman of the Committee for the the treatment of complaints of Sexual Abuse in Pastoral Relations had this to say:

“The Committee for the treatment of complaints of Sexual Abuse in Pastoral Relations considers the story of the Msgr. Vangheluwe’s victim an example of how growing up with an ‘unresolved past’ can make people sick according to the various meanings of the word and throws them into an endless search. Sexual abuse is in the first place a problem of abuse of power. Two aspects poison the chances of recovery: the secrecy enforced upon teh victim and the small circle in which the facts occur. The fact that people, even years later, decide not to be able to live with what happened to them is rooted in these. The antidote is clear. Counter to abuse of power is restoration of equality. Against the pressure of secrecy stands the right to openly make us of the freedom of speech. Against the closed nature of what happens indoors stands the transparency of policy with clear public communication. These are the three elements of recovery which are presented today to the victim and his family. We hope that the clear consequences for the responsible offender can help strengthen the victim in being part of our community.

Respect for the victim who has the courage to, in his suffering, step out of secrecy, means two things. On the one hand the responsible parties must do everything to protect the victim and stop the offender. On the other hand there is also a responsibility for the public opinion, namely to respect the anonymity requested by the victim and his family. As chairman and contact for the victim I strongly ask the media to respect this, and not to try and achieve contact.

As chairman I appreciate the Belgian bishops for the openness with which they approach the work of the Committee. The complaint that we had to investigate and which unites us today can be considered a test for transparency and decisiveness. In the media the question of whether the committee is capable of independently formulating her decisions appeared several times these past weeks. We did not consider it useful to continuously enter debate about this. The only right answer is to judge us on what we do.

Ever file on sexual abuse in the Church is a matter of loss for all of us. Measurable damage has been done to the victims, and much time and energy must be spent on deciding ont he offenders, and there is the invisible cost of violated trust. That is why I repeat here the call of the Committee to not only the victims but also to people who know they have crossed the boundaries of sexual behaviour, not to wait until the victims are of an age where they can charge them, but to have the courage themselves to contact us and let themselves be helped.”

Spokesman Peter Rossel of the Diocese of Bruges concluded with:

“This event is incomprehensible for those nearest to the bishop and in extension the entire diocese. The entourage of the bishop is surprised, shocked and upset, because there was no sign that the bishop was suffering under such a serious problem. The diocese is left decapitated after the bishop’s decision. The staff of the bishop took note of the bishop’s decision and respect it. They are sympathetic with those who have suffered. For this we in the diocese have no words. The word ‘unbelievable’ has become reality for us. We emphasise that every case is one too many, but that they are exceptions.

What Canon Law dictates is supposed to happen now: the college of consultors will appoint a diocesan administrator as soon as possible (canon 412), who will care for the running affairs of the diocese until the appointment of a new bishop by the pope. Until the appointment of the administrator and because the current vicars of the bishops are also resigning according to Church Law, no further statements swill be forthcoming from the diocese.”

Rumours about resignation Belgian bishop – to be updated

There are rumours that Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of Bruges has offered his resignation in relation to a case of sexual abuse. There are as yet no details or official confirmation of the case and the resignation. A family member of the bishop is said to have related the news to a press agency.

At noon today Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard of Malines-Brussels, Bishop Guy Harpigny of Tournai and Professor Peter Adriaenssens, chair of the committee investigating abuse claims in the Belgian Church, will hold a press conference.

Bishop Vangheluwe has been the head of the Bruges diocese since 1985.

EDIT (10:47): Belgian daily De Standaard reports that the resignation of a bishop was announced yesterday by the Belgian bishops’ conference, after which aforementioned family member identified Msgr. Vangheluwe as the bishop in question. The newspaper also says that Pope Benedict XVI is said to have already accepted the resignation.

EDIT (11:46): The press conference, due to start in less than fifteen minutes, can be watched here.

EDIT (12:25): Press conference revealed that Bishop Vangheluwe was himself guilty of abuse of a boy, in the time before he was appointed bishop. Archbishop Léonard was visibly emotional during the press conference, and statements from the spokesman of the Diocese of Bruges reflected similar feelings among the staff of the bishop.

I’ll make the statements of former Bishop Vangheluwe, Archbishop Léonard, Bishop Harpigny and spokesman Peter Rossel available in English in the course of the afternoon. You may already read the Dutch texts here.

In the meantime, let us pray for the victim and his family, that they may be helped on their way to recovery; for the Diocese of Bruges and the entire Belgian Church, that they may weather this storm and emerge stronger; and for Fr. Roger Vangheluwe, that he may be truly repentent for what he has done, and so receive the mercy of God.