|Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard has called for guilty priests or church workers to confess to their crimes [AFP]|
Belgium’s Roman Catholic Church has acknowledged widespread sexual abuse over many years by some members of its clergy and has promised to take action.
Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard said on Monday it would offer “maximum availability” to victims of sexual abuse, but did not provide concrete plans to deal with the crisis.
His comments were in response to a report published on Friday that revealed hundreds of abuse cases over the past 50 years including 13 victims that committed suicide as a result.
“The report and the suffering it contains make us shiver,” Leonard told reporters.
“We want to learn the lessons of the errors of the past. The reflections and conclusions contained in the report [on sexual abuse in the church] will be taken on board.”
Pope Benedict XVI feels “much pain” following revelations about the magnitude of the priest paedophilia scandal in Belgium, his spokesman told Belgian television on Monday.
“The pope is following very closely what is happening in the Belgian Catholic Church,” Federico Lombardi told RTL-TVI in the wake of last week’s report.
“Like everybody, he feels much pain after the publication of the report, which again reveals the huge suffering of victims and gives us an even more vivid sense of the gravity of the crimes.”
Call for confessions
Friday’s report, published by the Commission on Church-related Sexual Abuse Complaints, was set up by the Catholic Church and headed by a child psychiatrist.
The 200-page report said it had investigated 475 complaints between January and June this year, contained testimonies from some 124 anonymous “survivors” and revealed that the sexual abuse for most victims began at age 12, although one was just two years old.
Leonard “reiterated” a call for guilty priests and church workers to confess their crimes as well as their sins, saying past pleas to come forward had “not really been heard”.
Following a string of similar scandals in Germany, Ireland and the United States, the story broke in Belgium in April when the bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, quit after having admitted sexually abusing his nephew between 1973 and 1986.
Vangheluwe announced on Sunday that he would now leave the Westvleteren abbey where he had sought refuge for several months to withdraw “to another place, away from the Bruges diocese.”
“As my regrets have only increased, now I see all the harm that my actions caused,” he said.
Leonard said it was “up to Rome to decide” Vangheluwe’s fate within a “reasonable timeframe”.
But some human rights campaigners have expressed disappointment at the response.
“You can’t investigate crimes committed when the body is controlled by the institution itself,” Lieve Halsberghe of Human Rights in the Church, an association of victims of sex abuse by priests, said.
Critics have also accused the Church of not acting against errant priests and turning a blind eye to abuse.
The commission said it found no evidence that the Church had systematically covered up crimes, although had found instances where nothing was done.