PARIS (Reuters) - Belgium’s politicians and prelates are looking to Pope Benedict to help end a clerical sexual abuse crisis that is crippling the local Catholic Church and frustrating judicial authorities unable to resolve it.
Calls to punish former Bruges Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, who shocked Belgium last week by publicly excusing abuse cases that caused his downfall last year, have come from the Belgian prime minister, justice and foreign ministers and several senior politicians.
Belgian bishops have denounced Vangheluwe, 74, who quit as bishop of Bruges after admitting to molesting his nephew, and several bishops have made clear they want swift punitive action from the Vatican, which took control of his case this month.
But there is no consensus on what Benedict, who has the final say on Vangheluwe’s fate, should do. He has shied away from stiff punishments for bishops caught in the abuse crisis plaguing the Church in Europe and the United States.
Belgian justice cannot intervene because the abuse cases, which Vangheluwe admits to, all occurred before the 20-year statute of limitations for them. Church law has no provision to defrock a bishop although the Vatican has done it in rare cases.
“The Church ... should be much more severe and much more complete than what has been said up until now,” Justice Minister Stefaan De Clerck, a Christian Democrat, said on Friday.
Guy Harpigny, the bishop of Tournai, said: “I hope the Holy See understands that we need its help to clear up this affair - it’s time for it to get to work.”
Vangheluwe, who had been hiding in Belgium since stepping down in disgrace, moved to a French monastery several weeks ago on Vatican orders for “spiritual and psychological treatment” pending a decision from Rome on what his punishment should be.
Despite pleas from brother bishops, he appeared on Belgian television last Thursday and Friday evening and tried to play down the crisis by calling his abuse cases “a little game.”
He outraged Belgians by denying he was a pedophile despite admitting to also molesting a second nephew, arguing predator priests were unfairly treated and showing little understanding of the gravity of the crisis he had triggered.
Since his resignation, about 500 cases of abuse over several decades have been reported. A Church commission studying the cases found that at least 13 victims had committed suicide over the years because the Church ignored their complaints.
Vangheluwe’s interviews prompted calls over the weekend for him to be excommunicated, defrocked or locked up in a monastery and barred from further contact with the outside world.
Church law has no provision for defrocking a bishop. But Belgian theologian Rev. Gabriel Ringlet told Belgian television that this should not stop Benedict from taking decisive action.
“The pope should say loudly and clearly, ‘I deeply regret that our law does not permit it, but morally I consider that this bishop is no longer part of our family’,” he said.
Defrocking him, a step many critics outside the Church seem to anticipate, would not be the best solution because the Church would have no more authority over him, some bishops argued.
Antwerp Bishop Johan Bonny said Vangheluwe’s interviews had “ruined a lot of our work” to overcome the abuse crisis, but advised against simply throwing him out of the priesthood.
“If you do that, he’s a free man,” Bonny told the daily De Standaard. “He can come back to Belgium, stay in France or leave for Argentina. What would that do?”
It’s not clear how much control the Church has over the rogue bishop now anyway. Officials have confirmed to Belgian media that he will get his 2,800-euro state pension regardless of his standing in the Church.
Vangheluwe’s whereabouts are once again unclear. He left the secluded monastery near Orleans on Saturday after it complained about all the media attention his presence had caused, and does not seem to lack options to hide.
“I’ve received a massive amount of offers of lodging, both from monasteries and from individuals,” he boasted in his first television interview. “Hundreds of people have expressed their support by sending a letter or card.”
Editing by Mark Heinrich