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The Globe and Mail

Belgian church rocked by sex-abuse scandal

There were 32 worshippers at noontime Mass in a side chapel of the soaring Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, which dates from the 11th century. One-third of the faithful were African; there were two nuns and a police officer.

The priest, a stocky man with brushy white hair, murmured about a "time of difficulty" and spoke of Jesus and of the Pharisees, who kept the letter of God's law without understanding his love. "The Pharisee doesn't recognize the border between the pure and the impure," the priest said.

His sermon before a thin crowd seemed an obvious demonstration of the anguish of the Roman Catholic Church in Belgium, staggered by a sexual-abuse scandal that has already affected 475 victims. There have been 19 suicide attempts, 13 of them successful, by Belgians abused by the clergy.

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The country's longest-serving bishop, Roger Vangheluwe, resigned in disgrace when the nephew he abused for 13 years finally moved to expose him. The reputation of the former archbishop, the liberal Cardinal Godfried Danneels, has been badly damaged by his effort, caught on tape, to allow the bishop to retire quietly.

The new archbishop, the conservative Andre-Joseph Leonard, chosen by Pope Benedict XVI over the objections of Belgium's bishops, released a graphic 200-page report into the abuse scandal prepared by a child psychiatrist, Peter Adriaenssens, who worked with the hundreds who came forward after the bishop resigned.

Last week, the archbishop promised to open a centre for victims and vowed that new cases will go to the secular law enforcement authorities. But he made no apology and asked for more time to fashion a comprehensive response, disappointing many. The vivid suffering of the victims, he said, "makes us shiver."

The "shiver," though, has been more like an earthquake for the Belgian church, staggered by decades of abuse from those meant to uphold the highest moral standards. It is another blow to the "universal church" in its European heartland. Charges of priestly pedophilia and church cover-ups have recently spread to continental European countries like the Netherlands, Austria and the pope's own Germany, after some in the church once argued that such abuses were mainly confined to countries like the United States and Ireland.

Hundreds of Belgian Catholics have already sent letters asking to be debaptized, said Jurgen Mettepenningen, the spokesman for Archbishop Leonard. "This is one of the most difficult crises for the church in its history," he said. "This is a crisis of moral authority, of moral credibility" for a church that preaches morality to others.

"Even more, it's what priests did to innocent people, abusing religious authority and destroying lives," Mr. Mettepenningen said. "We can say that sexual abuse happens everywhere. But this happened in the church. And people expect - and they are right - that people of the church do what they promise."

Already confronted with empty churches, fewer priests and growing secularization, the church is now anxious about more mundane matters of financial culpability. These questions are particularly acute in Belgium, where the state pays the salaries and pensions of clergy and the upkeep of religious buildings, while supporting religious schools and broadcasts.

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The state subsidy is more than 320-million euros a year, of which the Roman Catholic Church gets 86 per cent, a disproportionate amount given the decrease in worship and the increase in the Muslim population, according to Caroline Sagesser of the Centre for Religious Studies of the Universite Libre de Bruxelles. Higher-ranking Catholic priests, such as bishops, make nearly 7,000 euros a month, well above their counterparts in other religions.

Louis-Leon Christians, professor of canon law at the Université Catholique de Louvain, was struck by the predominance of victims from Dutch-speaking Flanders, as opposed to French-speaking Wallonia, and by their age, suggesting that the worst abuses happened years ago.

Flanders then was poorer and more devout than Wallonia, with more parochial boarding schools, Christians noted.

In the years after a church commission on sexual abuse was set up in 1998, there were some 33 complaints, Christians noted. "I think the bishops were thinking, 'Okay, not so bad,'" he said. But after the Bishop Vangheluwe resignation and Archbishop Leonard's appeal, "there was a wave of nearly 500 complaints - more precisely, 500 stories of people trying to clarify the past."

Two-thirds of Belgian Catholic clergy are over 55, and one-third are over 65, he noted, saying: "Perhaps it is the same thing for practitioners." This year the church has only 28 students studying to be priests. "So in 2030 the church will be very different," he said, which is why its actions matter so much now.

New York Times News Service

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