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Religious Tolerance logo

Sexual abuse by clergy

Sexual and physical child abuse
by Roman Catholic clergy in Belgium

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Abuse by Roman Catholic clergy in Ireland and
the rest of Europe is described in separate essays.

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There had been sporadic accusations of abuse by Roman Catholic Clergy prior to 2010. However, they increased in number significantly in the Spring of 2010 after Roger Vangheluwe, the Bishop of Bruges resigned. He had publicly admitted to having sexually abused his nephew. This was the first known case of abuse involving a senior member of the Catholic hierarchy in Belgium. 1

Cardinal Godfried Danneels, the former head of the Roman Catholic Church in Belgium met with Vangheluwe, his nephew and and the victim's family in early 2010-APR. Danneels is reported to have suggested to the victim during the meeting that the nephew should keep the abuse secret because the bishop was due to retire in 2011 anyway.

During a media interview in 2010-SEP, Cardinal Danneels said that he should have demanded the bishop's resignation immediately. He said that his failure to do so was his "... most serious error of judgment." 2

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Church commission:

The Belgium Catholic Church formed a commission to receive and monitor accusations from victims of the clergy. However it was disbanded in 2010-JUN after its files were seized by government investigators who were seeking evidence to support criminal charges.

At the time that their data was seized, they had compiled a 200 page report containing details of 475 cases -- all that they had recorded up to that time. A total of 507 witnesses have told their stories to the Commission.

Some of their findings::

  • Some victims were as young as two-years-of-age.
  • Two thirds of the victims were male.
  • Boys aged about 12 were particularly vulnerable.
  • In most cases, abuse tailed off when the victims reached 15 or 16 years-of-age.
  • The rate of abuse seems to have peaked during the 1960s with a sharp drop in the 1980s.
  • About half of the abusers have since died.
  • Many had close ties to the families of their victims. Because the families often trusted the priests, the victims often had nowhere to go for support.
  • Few prosecutions could be launched because most of the victims came forward as adults after the state's statute of limitations had expired. 2

The age range of the victims differs from that observed elsewhere. It appears that most abusive priests in Belgium are ephebophiliacs: adults, usually male, who are sexually attracted to young people about the age of puberty.

This contrasts with experience in the U.S. where it is believed that over 90% of abusive priests are hebephiliacs: adults, usually male, who are sexually attracted to post-pubertal adolescents (14 to 17), who are also usually male.

It is unclear what causes this difference between the two countries. It is also unclear whether other countries in Europe follow either the American, or the Belgium model, or some other model.

At a news conference, Peter Adriaenssens, the head of the Church commission said:

"Almost every institution, every school, particularly boarding schools, at one time harbored abuse. ... With these testimonies, it was not about superficial handling. It was about oral and anal abuse, forced and mutual masturbation. In other words, it was about people who had experienced serious acts."

He noted that there were instances where abuse was reported, but the Church failed to respond. However, the commission found no evidence that the Church engaged in an active cover-up. At his news conference, Adriaenssens said:

"Silence is a sickness in society as a whole."

The commission's 200 page report was published on 2010-SEP-10. It contains one other gut wrenching detail:

"In the case of 13 of the victims, it was reported that they committed suicide and this was related to sexual abuse by a priest."

Six other witnesses said that they had attempted suicide.

The Vatican had no immediate response.

Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard said that he would respond to the report on 2010-SEP-13. 3

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The church's Belgium hierarchy responds:

On 2011-MAY-30, Belgium's Roman Catholic bishops and religious leaders issued a statement in response to the over 500 witnesses who had come forward with accounts molestation by clergy that had extended over an interval of many decades. The statement said that they were "...deeply touched and distraught" by the testimony, and noted that the abuse had "... given the victims great suffering and left traumas, which often lasted for many years."

They seemed to be unaware that the effects of sexual molestation often last for a person's entire lifetime.

Their statement said that they "wholeheartedly" regretted the suffering and trauma and that they "appreciated the courage of the victims to come forward with the painful facts. ...The bishops and religious leaders are unanimous and steadfast to do all possible to make sure such serious facts, which society rightly deplores, never happen again."

However, Lieve Halsberghe, the head of the Belgium branch of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) was skeptical. She said: "Whatever the bishops are saying is blah, blah. We need to see action before we believe anything they say."

She suspects that abuse may be continuing at the present time. SNAP is studying cases of priests who have a four or five decade history of abuse and yet are still allowed to take care of "minors in precarious situations — poor, with no power."

She said that: "The bishops know that the justice system in Belgium is weak, the judiciary is very weak, and they are trying to hide behind it." She notes that previous offers by the church to victims of abuse included a confidentiality requirement that required victims to keep silent about the abuse. She said: "I think this is a cruel thing, and absolutely against human rights. Survivors need to talk to heal. You cannot heal without talking."

The Associated Press reported that:

"For years, victims organizations had complained that the religious leadership totally ignored their pleas and protected abusing priests by simply moving them from parish to parish instead of punishing them.

A parliamentary inquiry committee set up in the wake of the scandal heard church officials acknowledge that they often were aloof to abuse problems and the needs of the victims.

The church officials said that in the wake of the inquiry they had agreed to enter arbitrage [sic] to consider compensation in cases where the legal time limit for filing suit has expired. Compensation would be agreed on a case-by-case basis. ..."

Former bishop Roger Vangheluwe called 13 years of sexual abuse of one nephew which started at age 5 as no more than "a little piece of intimacy." He said the abuse of a second nephew was very short.

Vangheluwe said last month he fully realized what he did was wrong, and often went to confession about it. The 74-year-old Vangheluwe resigned a year ago, just as the sex abuse scandal was spreading across Europe. 4

Within the first 21 hours after the news account was posted on Yahoo!, readers had posted 1,161 comments! Almost all of them were vitriolic and angry. Many were personal attacks on ex-bishop Vangheluwe.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Philip Blenkinsop, "Child abuse widespread in Belgian Church - report," Reuters, 2010-SEP-10, at:
  2. Philip Blenkinsop, "Belgian cardinal admits mistakes in sex abuse case," Reuters, 2010-SEP-08, at:
  3. Raf Casert, "Ex-bishop in Belgian abuse scandal goes to hiding," Associated Press, 2010-SE
    P-11, at:
  4. Raf Casert & Don Melvin, "Belgian church to pay victims for abuse," Associated Press, 2011-MAY-30, at:

Site navigation:

 Home page > Religious Info. > Basic info > Clergy abuse > here

or Home page > Religious conflict > Specific conflicts > Clergy abuse > here

or Home page > Christianity > Roman Catholicism > Clergy abuse > here

Copyright 2010 & 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2010-SEP-10
Latest update: 2011-MAY-31
Author: B.A. Robinson

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