The National Catholic Review

I don't often correct myself, but I think I need to on this occasion. What I wrote on the devastating weekend story of how Cardinal Danneels sought to persuade an abuse victim to remain silent was, I now realise, too sympathetic to the former Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels.

I say this because my friend Tom Heneghan of Reuters -- who runs the indispensable Faithworld blog -- has been in touch, gently to point out that where I had written

And there is the abuse victim unable to forgive him. ("This is unsolvable,” the nephew tells his uncle. “You’ve torn our family completely apart.”) That exchange throws light on what Bishop Vangheluwe said when he resigned: that he had asked the victim and his family to forgive him but the wound had not healed, “neither in me nor the victim.”

I was in fact misquoting Tom, who had in fact written: "This is unsolvable," the relative responds. "You've ...."

This is significant, because there was a fourth person present at the second meeting with Danneels, a relative who, it is safe to assume, was the same one who emailed the Belgian bishops to threaten to go public -- a threat which resulted in the resignation of Bishop Vangheluwe two weeks after the Danneels meeting. That threat was prompted by Danneels's continued refusal, in the first meeting, to act. Tom tells me:

In fact, during the first meeting between Danneels and the victim, the victim says several times he cannot go on with this secrecy and begs Danneels to help him report his uncle to the Church hierarchy. "I want to put it in your hands," he says, but Danneels refuses to help. He then mentions informing Archbishop Leonard and Pope Benedict, but Danneels brushes this off. The victim says he feels a duty to report his uncle because he's been reading about the scandals in other countries as well. He wants Vangheluwe to quit but not have any other information get out -- a naive assumption that Danneels immediately uses against him by saying that his name will quickly get out if his uncle admits to abuse but doesn't say who. The man comes across in the transcript as disturbed and distressed by his quandry and upset by the way Danneels deflects all pleas for help.

Tom also adds this crucial extra bit of information:

What is not said in the transcripts but was reported in the other paper running the transcripts (Het Nieuwsblad) is that the victim was moved to speak out after learning that Vangheluwe had consecrated a deacon who was a child abuser. One of his victims later committed suicide. Vangheluwe's victim felt this might have been avoided if he had spoken out about Vangheluwe years ago. The victim cannot just accept an apology from his uncle, he feels a duty to do more, but he does not come across as vengeful. At one point early on, he even says to Danneels that if he (D) suggests a coverup is the only way, he might have to learn to live with that. But then he pulls himself together again and says Vangheluwe simply cannot stay in office if the Church is to stand for anything at all.

Tom adds:

In the second transcript, he tries to get Vangheluwe off the hook with the family by having him apologise to the victim and his relative. Vangheluwe does this and then starts talking about how he feels liberated talking about this because he's been dragging it around for 20 years trying to figure out what he could do to resolve it without causing more pain. He begins to sound like he's sorry for himself. Danneels comments, "Yes, this isn't very easy, is it?" -- as if he's trying to convince the victim and relative that Vangheluwe is doing the maximum he can. That's when the relative says this is unsolvable. Then Danneels tells the victim and relative it's a big deal that Vangheluwe asks for  forgiveness and suggests he do this in front of the whole family. That's when the relative says the bishop has torn the whole family apart. Danneels just says, "Yes, this is embarrassing" (or awkward), what do you think (he asks the victim)? The transcript stops there but you get the impression he is not putting any more pressure on the bishop.

Now, Cardinal Danneels's spokesman has made much of the fact that he had agreed to be a mediator in the family circle, and that "at no time was pressure exerted on the family or the victim to keep the event secret or to prevent their appealing to justice or to the Adriaenssens Commission" -- that's the body set up by the Church to investigate clerical sex abuse allegations. But the transcript, as described by Tom -- backed up my own impression from an English translation (quality not guaranteed) here -- does clearly show the kind of stonewalling which abuse victims have often reported from bishops. 

There is nothing wrong with Cardinal Danneels inviting the victim to forgive his abuser uncle, Bishop Vangheluwe, but that path is refused by the victim, who wants action by the Church to ensure that his uncle no longer continues in active ministry. Given the extra information above about the deacon who abused, that is a reasonable desire on his part; and Pope Benedict has made clear that there is no place in the priesthood -- and here we are talking about a bishop -- for those who have abused young people.

But Cardinal Danneels closes off all the possibilities: a resignation would drag his name through the mud; he has no power over the bishop; only the Pope can ask him to resign, but the Pope is unreachable, and so on. Cardinal Danneels's insistence  that he exerted no pressure on the victim to keep the event secret is undermined by the transcript; by effectively telling the victim continually that forgiveness is the best course and that other courses of action are either impractical or have grave consequences, the pressure is all too obvious.

There was an obvious course -- and Cardinal Danneels was obliged, under Pope John Paul II's motu proprio of 2001, to take it: namely, to inform the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. The whole point of that all-important declaration was that Rome must be notified in order to ensure that action is taken against priests who have admitted or been convicted of abuse. Its purpose was to prevent precisely the kind of stonewalling and brushing-under-the-carpet by bishops which have led to justified anger and frustration among abuse victims.

Leaving aside the question of whether the Cardinal should have involved the police -- the victim doesn't appear to want this, and we must assume that the Cardinal was, as he says, acting as a "family mediator" -- he should at least have offered to the victim recourse to the Church's own law, which calls for punishment "up to an including laicisation" for abusive priests.

I don't disown all of what I wrote before. But Tom has helped me to see this case more clearly. Cardinal Danneels was asked to act to ensure justice for an abuse victim, and he refused. That is a terrible indictment, and those who commented on the previous piece were right to take me to task for appearing to suggest otherwise. 

Comments

MAUREEN TURLISH SISTER | 9/2/2010 - 7:39am
Danneel's pleading naiveté is as absurd as it is disingenuous.  
 
Surely April of 2010 was not the first time he has had to deal with the reality of priests sexually abusing minor children, young men, women or vulnerable adults?  

The protection of Vangheluwe's image and reputation comes across clearly in Cardinal Danneel's words as it has in the words of bishops worldwide during these past twenty-five years in documents, previously sealed depositions and private letters, criminal and civil lawsuits and the like.
 
Danneel appears to have avoided considering the possibility that Vangheluwe may have abused others in addition to his nephew and even enabled other sexual predators because of his position as bishop of Bruges or vulnerability to blackmail. 
 
Moreover, it has been documented elsewhere that Danneel received reports about Vangheluwe as early as 1996.

Cardinal Danneel's failure to act in the best interests of either Vangheluwe's nephew or the People of God is just the most recent example of Clericalism at its worst.
 
Would it have been too much to expect that Danneels, a Cardinal Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church, would consider it his pastoral responsibility in both charity and justice to alert church authorities - Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal William Levada, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the  Bishops' Conference - about the implications Vangheluwe's sexually abusive behavior posed?

Cardinal Danneel's inability to act morally with integrity reveals the hubris bred into the church's clerical system along with examples of the chutzpah of individual episcopal leaders which hasn't changed all that much in recent years.  There are scores of examples while none have been disciplined.  Danneel is only the latest example. 

Sadly, it appears to many that the pope's visit to England, like his visits to other countries, will not result in any disciplining of episcopal authorities who have abused their power and authority in enabling and covering up for sexual predators, no matter their rank. 
 
Yes, the pope may talk to a few victims as he has done in the past but beyond his words of sympathy, whose sincerity I do not doubt, what really substantive steps has he taken?  

Sister Maureen Paul Turlish
Victims' Advocate
New Castle, Delaware
maureenpaulturlish@yahoo.com
Gloria Sullivan | 9/1/2010 - 5:08pm
Why should the victim forgive, what God Almighty won't forgive? Have you never heard of the UNPARDONABLE SIN? 

WHEN A MAN OF FAITH GROOMS AND SEDUCES A MINOR CHILD, HANDICAPED OR MARGINALIZED ADULT FOR HIS OWN SICK PLEASURES AND TELL HIM IT'S OK , do you think the God of Abraham and Jacob, the God the Father of Christ Jesus,who died on the Cross for us all, would forgive that Sin?  I  don't think so.  It is a SIN AGAINST THE HOLY SPIRIT..AND THAT IS THE UNFORGIVEABLE SIN.  PRE-MEDIATED AND GROOMED  BY A MAN OF GOD.  THAT'S NOT FORGIVEABLE IN ANY MAN'S EYES, LET ALONE THE GOD WHO CREATED THE UNIVERSE, AND ALL THAT IS IN IT, INLUDING YOU AND ME.

Do you forgive the devil for what he did? 
david power | 9/1/2010 - 3:36pm
This is an incredible posting. It has in essence all of the details of the child-rape drama . It is worth bearing in mind that this happened after the letter by the Pope to the catholics of Ireland.These bishops were aware of the Universal disgust at the cover-ups and the raping of children.The million and one "sincere" apologies from the clergy.And then this!!It is like they are trapped in a timewarp.The deference to the Cardinal is sickening.The bishop only confessed under pressure.To call him a repentant sinner is silly.He is a reluctant penitent. Despite being a liberal cardinal he still plays Romanita to the hilt.All of these priests bishops and cardinals who were involved in the rape of innocent children should get the very best of pastoral care and christian love in prison.
I disagree with the negativity of some of the commentators towards the author who has shown himself to be capable of a swift correction.A rare catholic indeed!!!!
Carolyn Disco | 8/31/2010 - 11:51pm
Further, Danneels claims he learned of the abuse only a few weeks prior to the meeting. Yet two priests insist they told the cardinal repeatedly during the 1990’s. Fr. Rick Deville even recounts how impatient Danneels was, looking at his watch, and threatening him later not to level charges without proof. No investigation was done.
 
Danneels says he has no memory of reports; besides, there is no written record in the archives. Of course not. The reports were verbal and Danneels would have had to memorialize the complaint in writing himself, something his manner gave no indication of doing.
 
Ivereigh captures the point: “Cardinal Danneels was asked to act to ensure justice for an abuse victim, and he refused. That is a terrible indictment…” How revealing and how devastating that Osaer and Keulenee  dismiss  that fact with a barrage of words signifying nothing.
Carolyn Disco | 8/31/2010 - 11:50pm
I believe the first comment by “Osaer” is Toon Osaer, spokesman for Cardinal Danneels, passing on the remarks of Danneels’ lawyer, charging character assassination of the cardinal by a Belgian newspaper.
 
This apologia is so demoralizing. I wonder if either Osaer or Attorney Keulenee took the mea culpa of Ivereigh to heart, or even read it seriously.
 
Keulenee’s first quote is about the victim’s frustration over inaction about his uncle’s abuse, and who to see to get some redress. He goes on to say that Danneels did not exert “any pressure on the abuse victim.” Really? It is simply not true by any genuine understanding of the discussion.
 
Ivereigh’s take, referring to the typical stonewalling by bishops that victims repeatedly recount: “But Cardinal Danneels closes off all the possibilities (for redress): a resignation would drag his name through the mud; he has no power over the bishop; only the Pope can ask him to resign, but the Pope is unreachable, and so on.
 
“Cardinal Danneels's insistence  that he exerted no pressure on the victim to keep the event secret is undermined by the transcript; by effectively telling the victim continually that forgiveness is the best course and that other courses of action are either impractical or have grave consequences, the pressure is all too obvious.”
 
Yes, the pressure is all too obvious. But hierarchs and their apologists are blind, clueless, maybe self-deceiving, or consciously ignorant of such realities.
Anonymous | 8/31/2010 - 8:22pm
Completion of the autopsy on this man’s sin does not obviate the need for reparation. Surely, the heart of the victim, the heart of the sinner, our hearts, and the hearts of Jesus and Mary are laden with grief.
ed gleason | 8/31/2010 - 6:27pm
Your  mea culpa was a good post. All one has to know about this case is that it took two more weeks of 'action' to get Vangheluwe to resign .. the damage these cover-ups causes to the Body of Christ has me thinking that canon law should have a section on treasonable crimes. Imagine a president or general officer hearing about another general, someone who has destoyed or turned over to the enemy a regiment, even an army with criminal actions and  giving him a pass.'Let's let him resign next year and give him a medal'. BASTA
Toon Osaer | 8/31/2010 - 4:46pm
ABOUT CARDINAL DANNEELS’ FAILED ATTEMPT AT RECONCILIATION WITHIN THE VANGHELUWE FAMILY
 From the transcripts as published by De Standaard:
 +++++
Victim (when informed that cardinal Danneels, had and has no canonical authority over Mgr. Vangheluwe): “Then what am I doing here – wouldn’t it be more appropriate, I suppose, to set up a meeting with the pope?”
Godfried Danneels: “Or with the new archbishop.”
++++++
Godfried Danneels: “Are you asking him to resign?”
Victim: “That is up to him to decide, I only want to report it, that is all.  You want me to say something which I cannot say.  I cannot, and I don’t know how this must proceed, or – I must find a way to give all this a certain completeness.  For today, I had expected him to publicly confess to the family, for him to say: I did those things.  With everyone present.”
Godfried Danneels: “He will do that.”
+++++
Victim:  “Then give me another solution – I would have to forgive him, and then everything is settled.”
Godfried Danneels: “No, no, no.”
+++++
On Saturday August 28, the Belgian newspaper De Standaard committed a character assassination on Cardinal Godfried Danneels (77), the retired archbishop of Mechelen – Brussels.  De Standaard published (a part only of) the transcript of the tapes which had been secretly recorded during a confidential, improvised and failed reconciliation attempt with the Vangheluwe family, which the Cardinal acquiesced to undertake on April 8, 2010,  De Standaard put certain paragraphs in red and moreover added extremely biased commentary.
Almost everyone agrees that legally, the Cardinal did nothing wrong.  We moreover consider the Cardinal has acted in a morally irreproachable way. 
In the beginning of April 2010, Cardinal Danneels receives a telephone call from his former colleague (as a bishop, for a quarter of a century) and friend Mgr. Roger Vangheluwe, then still bishop of Bruges.  At the outset of the conversation, Mgr. Vangheluwe immediately informs the Cardinal that he has committed a heinous act: as of 1973, he had been sexually abusing his own nephew.  The abuse continues until 1986, when the victim’s father confronts his brother.  The discussion between former colleagues takes no more than a few minutes.  As anybody in a similar situation would be, the Cardinal is shocked and can barely respond. 
Only a few days later, on April 8, 2010, the catholic association of senior citizens “OKRA” organizes a large meeting in Bruges.  The Cardinal is a guest of honour and receives – at the occasion of his own retirement – a honorary membership.  Mgr. Vangheluwe is also present and approaches the Cardinal.  He requests the Cardinal to attend and facilitate a meeting  between himself and his family.  The Cardinal is reluctant and says he prefers another date.  He asks his former colleague to call his family.  Mgr. Vangheluwe does so, and tells the Cardinal that his family is already on its way and that it would be good for them to have the conversation.  If the Cardinal has been naïve, it is at this point, when accepting the request to mediate.  But it would be a very cynical position to hold against Cardinal Danneels the fact that he opted to attempt a reconciliation in a family tragedy, and in doing so, exposed himself to potential negative press coverage, rather than choosing the easy way out by shifting the problem to the papal nuncio.
Around 03.00 p.m. the victim arrives with a number of relatives.
The Cardinal is unprepared for what follows.  He assumes his role is to mediate in a family drama which took place between 1973 and 1986, which has been kept a family secret for the following twenty-four years and which has continued to fester, and for which a reconciliation and some form of repair may be possible.  This is moreover what at least some of the family members wish for – and this preferably without a public scandal, which, as the Cardinal very correctly pointed out, would be in nobody’s interest.
Mgr. Vangheluwe’s nephew however expected that attending a meeting with “the Cardinal” in the presence of his family, would give him the opportunity to address the “employer” of his uncle: somebody in a position to dismiss his uncle as a bishop.  It also becomes clear that Mgr. Vangeluwe’s nephew expected Mgr. Léonard (the newly appointed archbishop of Mechelen – Brussels) to attend.  This is not the case, and the Cardinal informs Mgr. Vangheluwe’s nephew from in the beginning and very clearly that he has retired  and has no authority whatsoever.  His sole role is to mediate and advise.  He does suggest to arrange a meeting with Mgr. Léonard if that is desired.
Not once during the meeting does the Cardinal exert any form of pressure on the abuse victim.  At multiple instances the Cardinal asks what the victim wants to be done.  The victim answers: I put it in “your” (plural) hands.  The Cardinal asks the victim whether he wants the matter to be publicized.  Again, the victim answers: I leave it up to “you” (plural).  The Cardinal asks whether Mgr. Vangheluwe should resign.  The victim replies: “but he should decide that”, and that “for today”, he desires Mgr. Vangheluwe to openly confess in front of the entire family.
Cardinal Danneels causes Mgr. Vangheluwe, for the first time in twenty-four years, to admit his guilt in front of his entire family, to apologize and to beg forgiveness.  Whoever considers this a meaningless or unimportant event, is wrong.
At the explicit and repeated request of the victim, Cardinal Danneels suggests various alternatives, which take into account not only the victim whose life has been destroyed, but also his family who has suffered along with the victim as well as, indeed, the perpetrator who in Christian eyes remains a human being.  The Cardinal proposes that Mgr. Vangheluwe would disappear as much as possible from public life during the following year, and would then immediately resign upon reaching the retirement age (often bishops stay in their position for a few more years).  This would avoid the press asking questions: none of the persons involved – including the victim – are eager for a public family scandal.  Once more: the abuse victim and his family had been aware of the abuse for twenty-four years and have during this period never attempted to contact either the press or the police.
It is true that the Cardinal has also proposed forgiveness as a part of a conceivable solution.  One could consider this a hopelessly naïve or an outdated pastoral remedy.  This is not so.  Forgiveness indeed is the Catholic and moreover correct answer towards a repenting sinner.  An abuse victim who is able to forgive – after penance and repair by the offender of whatever that  still can be repaired  – is a happier individual in comparison to a victim who merely scored in court or who only received financial compensation.  Forgiveness and reconciliation are there not only for those who receive forgiveness  but also for those who grant forgiveness.  The solutions proposed by the Cardinal are potentially substantially more effective than their alternatives – that is, if such alternatives existed, which is not the case since it is not the role of a mediator in a confidential discussion to inform or alert any third party and since anyhow, no legal recourse or remedies were still available, neither from a canon law nor from a civil law perspective.
The conversation turns, at many instances, into a painful family dispute.  This is not reflected in De Standaard, which has not published the entirety of the conversation.  Near the end, the Cardinal mentions that in his opinion, the conversation remains unfinished and that the issues should be revisited.  He leaves the meeting with the understanding that all involved shall take some time for reflection, and that  another meeting would follow in order to see whether  the peace in the family could be restored.  Such a second meeting never takes place: within days after the first meeting, Mgr. Vangheluwe by telephone informs the Cardinal he has tendered his resignation in writing to the papal nuncio.
Finally: the justification for publishing a part of the conversations which took place is apparently that the abuse victim had been accused of blackmailing the former bishop of Bruges to acquire a financial gain.  Whether this accusation is correct or not, it is not the Cardinal who spread this rumour, and it remains completely unclear how destroying one reputation can repair the tarnishing of another one. 
Fernand Keulenee
Attorney of Cardinal Godfried Danneels