BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgium’s Catholic bishops asked all victims of sexual abuse by priests for pardon on Wednesday in a pastoral letter promising tougher guidelines for clergy working with children.
The bishops, just returned from a visit to Pope Benedict in Rome, also promised in their first letter about the scandal to Belgian Catholics that they would improve the way they exercise their authority as leaders of the Church.
In the sexual abuse crisis shaking the Church in Europe, critics in several countries have demanded that bishops who covered up for predator priests should resign.
Three Irish bishops and one each in Belgium and Germany have stepped down because they hushed up cases of children abused by priests or abused children themselves sexually or physically.
“We ask pardon from all victims of sexual abuse, both for the aggression and for the inadequate treatment of it,” the letter said. “We also ask pardon from victims’ families and from society for the human consequences caused by this abuse.”
The letter said the Church hierarchy had not realized the full impact of sexual abuse on children and its silence had put the Church’s reputation before concern for the victims’ dignity.
“The abusers got a second chance, while the victims carried in their flesh the injuries that cannot or can hardly heal,” it said. “We thank the victims who found the courage to break through this wall of silence by telling what happened to them.”
Like fellow Church leaders in other countries, the Belgian bishops pledged to tighten requirements for prospective priests and staff working with young Catholics.
They also said they had to reexamine how they managed the Church so that abuse of clerical power would not be repeated.
“This will require courage and humility, especially from bishops and other leaders of the Church community,” they said.