27 Dec 2010

Crisis of moral authority and credibility for Belgian Catholic church after decades of clergy abuse that destroyed lives

New York Times - September 19, 2010

Belgian Catholics Remain Anguished by Abuse


BRUSSELS — There were 32 worshipers at noontime Mass in a side chapel of the soaring Cathedral of SS. Michael and Gudula, which dates from the 11th century. A third of the faithful were African; there were two nuns and a police officer.

The priest, a stocky man with brushy white hair, murmured about a “time of difficulty” and spoke of Jesus and of the Pharisees, who kept the letter of God’s law without understanding his love. “The Pharisee doesn’t recognize the border between the pure and the impure,” the priest said.

His sermon before a thin crowd seemed an obvious demonstration of the anguish of the Roman Catholic Church in Belgium, staggered by a sexual-abuse scandal that has already affected 475 victims. There have been 19 suicide attempts, 13 of them successful, by Belgians abused by clergy members.

The country’s longest-serving bishop, Roger Vangheluwe, resigned in disgrace when the nephew he abused for 13 years finally moved to expose him, and the reputation of a former archbishop, the liberal Cardinal Godfried Danneels, has been badly damaged by his effort, caught on tape, to allow the bishop to retire quietly.

The new archbishop, the conservative André-Joseph Léonard, chosen by Pope Benedict XVI over the objections of Belgium’s bishops, released a graphic 200-page report into the abuse scandal prepared by a child psychiatrist, Peter Adriaenssens, who worked with the hundreds who came forward after the bishop resigned.

Last week, the archbishop promised to open a center for victims and vowed that new cases will go to the secular law enforcement authorities. But he made no apology and asked for more time to fashion a comprehensive response, disappointing many. The vivid suffering of the victims, he said, “makes us shiver.”

But the “shiver” has been more like an earthquake for the Belgian church, affected by decades of abuse from those meant to uphold the highest moral standards. It is another blow to the “universal church” in its European heartland. Charges of priestly pedophilia and church cover-ups have recently spread to continental European countries like the Netherlands, Austria and the pope’s own Germany, after some in the church once argued that such abuses were mainly confined to countries like the United States and Ireland.

Hundreds of Belgian Catholics have already sent letters asking to be debaptized, said Jürgen Mettepenningen, the spokesman for Archbishop Léonard. “This is one of the most difficult crises for the church in its history,” he said. “This is a crisis of moral authority, of moral credibility” for a church that preaches morality to others.

“Even more, it’s what priests did to innocent people, abusing religious authority and destroying lives,” Mr. Mettepenningen said. “We can say that sexual abuse happens everywhere. But this happened in the church. And people expect — and they are right — that people of the church do what they promise.”

Already confronted with empty churches, fewer priests and growing secularization, the church is now anxious about more mundane matters of financial culpability. These questions are particularly acute in Belgium, where the state pays the salaries and pensions of clergy members and the upkeep of religious buildings, while supporting religious schools and broadcasts.

The state subsidy is more than $417 million a year, of which the Roman Catholic Church gets 86 percent, a disproportionate amount given the decrease in worship and the increase in the Muslim population, according to Caroline Sägesser of the Center for Religious Studies of the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Higher-ranking Catholic clergy members, like bishops, make more than $9,000 a month, well above their counterparts in other religions.

Lieve Halsberghe, an advocate for victims of abuse, wants the pope to defrock Father Vangheluwe and the state to stop his pension, currently about $3,600 a month, about twice the average. More important, she said, the victims need “the justice they deserve.”

Justice means recognition but also compensation for years of therapy and hurt, she said. Justice also means punishing the guilty. “The church brings forth the victims to detract attention,” she said. “But the perpetrators get away.”

Jan Hertogen, 63, testified about being abused at 15. He called for the church to set up another, independent commission “to retrieve all the stories,” saying: “The church must take responsibility, confront the victims and cooperate with them.” While recognition of his pain is more important, he said, “I need to be compensated in a natural way, to receive 120 euros a month to pay for my therapy.” Did the abuse harm his faith? “I had to integrate it. I had to survive.”

Another victim, now 66, said that at 15, after misbehaving in parochial school, a priest “gave me bare-bottom spanks while masturbating.” Asking for anonymity, the man said: “I felt utter hatred and for the first time in my life, I had a criminal impulse, a desire to kill a man. And it affected my vision of humankind.”

Louis-Léon Christians, professor of canon law at the Université Catholique de Louvain, was struck by the predominance of victims from Dutch-speaking Flanders, as opposed to French-speaking Wallonia, and by their age, suggesting that the worst abuses happened years ago.

Flanders then was poorer and more devout than Wallonia, with more parochial boarding schools, Mr. Christians noted.

In the years after a church commission on sexual abuse was set up in 1998, there were about 33 complaints, Mr. Christians noted. “I think the bishops were thinking, ‘O.K., not so bad,’ ” he said. But after the Vangheluwe resignation and Archbishop Léonard’s appeal, “there was a wave of nearly 500 complaints — more precisely, 500 stories of people trying to clarify the past.”

Two-thirds of Belgian Catholic clergy members are over 55, and one-third are over 65, he noted, saying: “Perhaps it is the same thing for practitioners.” This year the church has only 28 students studying to be priests. “So in 2030 the church will be very different,” he said, which is why its actions matter so much now.

Norbert Bethune is a priest who was dismissed after marrying. He said he brought charges against Father Vangheluwe seven years ago but was ignored. “The church must start believing the victims and not just the pedophile priest,” he said. “We know there are many priests in Belgium who have done these things and they are still priests.”

Marco Politi, Vatican analyst for Il Fatto Quotidiano, an Italian daily newspaper, noted that the pope had spoken of his pain and the failure to credit victims. “But the Vatican did not respond to the other half of the problem — why so many of these issues were shelved,” he said.

The Vatican wants national churches to handle the issue, Mr. Politi said, yet the Italian bishops conference, led by Benedict as primate of Italy, has done little to investigate abuses.

What is at stake, said David Gibson, a biographer of Pope Benedict, is the nature of the church.

“This is a convulsive moment where you see people formally leaving the church,” he said. “If this sex scandal turns off those who maintain at least some connection to the church, will you be left with just the traditionalists? Will it produce a more fortress Catholicism, however small that fortress will be?”

Maïa de la Baume contributed reporting from Paris.

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