Background to the “War on the Church” in Belgium.

Monseigneur Rauber, Cardinal Danneels, Monseig...


The Vatican, and many Catholic apologists around the world, have reacted with shock and anger to the Belgian police raids on the bishops’ headquarters and the residences of leading churchmen. Two useful background pieces at NCR offer some  perspective on why, in a supposedly strongly Catholic country, the authorities should have acted so forcefully against the Church.

In “Belgium a ‘perfect storm’ on sex abuse crisis“,  John Allen reminds us that in Belgium, child abuse is an even more sensitive issue than elsewhere, following an appalling national scandal in the nineties over the deaths of children and allegations of an extensive pedophile network of influential people, and bungled investigations by the authorities at the time.

In the mid-1990s, a massive national pedophilia scandal erupted when four young girls were found dead at the house of Marc Dutroux, a previously convicted sex offender. Investigators discovered a warren of underground concrete cages beneath his house where Dutroux kept children prisoner. Eventually, the investigation suggested the existence of “pedophilia networks,” involving orgies at which drugs and underage children were made available to VIP clients including, allegedly, politicians, judges and police.

A 15-month parliamentary investigation, which ended in 1998, found massive incompetence and corruption in the way authorities had handled complains of sexual exploitation of children. According to most observers in Belgium, the experience left the country scarred, distrustful of its institutions, and a widespread attitude of “never again” regarding the sexual abuse of children.

At the same time, Belgium is no longer the staunchly Catholic country it once was, and has become one of the most secularised countries in Europe. The national disengagement from the Church was given additional impetus with the appointment of the conservative  Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard to succeed Cardinal Godfried Danneels to head the local church, a move that was seen as insensitive to the national mood.

Ambivalence about the Catholic church, and the Vatican in particular, can be glimpsed from the way Belgium responded to the controversy last year over Benedict XVI’s remarks en route to Africa to the effect that condoms make the problem of AIDS worse. While those words triggered wide debate, only in Belgium did the national parliament formally vote to censure the pontiff.

The vote in favor of a declaration calling the pope’s comments “unacceptable” was 95 to 18, with seven abstentions.

Benedict’s choice of Léonard, 70, to replace Danneels further aggravated backlash against the church in some quarters. Deputy Prime Minister Laurette Onkelinx, a leading French-speaking member of the Socialist Party, charged that Léonard’s staunch ethical traditionalism would endanger the “Belgian compromise” between believers and secularists – an informal “live and let live” agreement to avoid open cultural war. For much the same reason, Le Soir called the appointment “stupefying.”

In a separate piece, Allen provides an English translation of an interview from April given by Fr. Rik Devillè, a Belgian priest who claims to have twice spoken to the Belgian church authorities fifteen years ago about extensive allegations of abuse against  Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of Bruges (who earlier this year resigned in disgrace over similar claims .) The allegations, says Fr.  Devillè were simply ignored.

You have said that you spoke with Cardinal Godfried Danneels, the former primate of the Belgian church, but he says he doesn’t remember.

I spoke with him about my files on two occasions, in the first half of the 1990s. I advised him of the problem, and I don’t know what he did afterwards. On one occasion, however, I remember that the cardinal became angry. He said this wasn’t my job and that I should stay out of it.

Do you think he said that to hide something?

The bishops have a long history over their shoulders of silence and omissions. They protect the guilty, and not the victims.

A national sensitivity to child abuse and any suggestions of the guilty evading punishment, a published allegation that the church ignored charges 15 years ago that could have brought Bishop Roger Vangheluwe’s crimes to light much earlier, and a highly secularised country that has become sceptical of all church claims for special treatment – is it any surprise that the Belgians are not overly concerned about the Vatican’s howls of protest?


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