Belgium’s Catholic bishops said they would learn from their errors after an independent report highlighted hundreds of cases of sexual abuse by clergy. The bishops said the church would work with Belgium’s Justice and Interior ministries in devising ways of preventing abuse and bringing past cases to light, and that officials would honor victims’ demands to be personally involved in new “healing initiatives.”
They pledged to set up a “center for recognition, healing and reconciliation” and to draw up plans for financial compensation for victims. The bishops said they would establish guidelines for all church personnel working with children and young people.
The initiatives were presented at a Sept. 13 news conference, three days after the report from a commission headed by Peter Adriaenssens recounted sexual abuse in most Catholic dioceses and all church-run boarding schools and religious orders. The commission said 475 cases of abuse had been reported, including more than 300 cases that involved boys younger than 15 at the time the abuse occurred. Two-thirds of the victims were male; 14 had killed themselves; and six more had attempted suicide.
The commission reported clergy assaulted more than 160 girls; many were abused into adulthood. The problem was worst in the 1960s but declined in the 1980s, when there were fewer priests in Belgium and the church was less involved in education.
Pope Benedict XVI has been following the situation in Belgium very closely, said the Vatican’s spokesman. “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,” Federico Lombardi, S.J., said. According to Father Lombardi, the pope and his collaborators were in direct contact with Belgian bishops, offering advice on how best to deal with the situation.
Although prosecutors had yet to bring charges against those accused, half of whom are now deceased, the commission recommended punishing those who failed to come forward and setting up a solidarity fund for victims. “These accounts and the suffering they contain make us shudder—they confront us with something which should never have happened and deserve our deepest and greatest attention for the human drama played out in them,” the bishops said in a statement.
“Sexual abuse fundamentally undermines everything one can say about God, the Gospel or a Christian life,” the bishops said. “The words evil, sin, confession, reparation, healing, asking and giving forgiveness form the core of the Christian language. These words are tragically, terribly polluted and deformed by the many accounts of sexual abuse. However regrettable the confrontation may be, these accounts and the faces of their victims cannot be hidden from our community.”
Victims complained that the bishops’ statement included no clear proposal for pursuing abusers or for compensating victims. Walter Van Steenbrugge, a lawyer who represents 35 victims, said his clients were “very angry with this scandalous reaction.”
“We were thinking they were ready to pay the costs of all the therapy the victims needed in all these years.” Instead, the response was “very disappointing,” Mr. Van Steenbrugge said, adding that his clients would pursue civil cases against the church.