Belgian Catholic bishop admits molesting boy
Roger Vanheluwe, the bishop of Bruges, says he begged for victim’s forgiveness as Vatican confirms his resignation
A Belgian bishop has confessed to molesting a boy, becoming the first high-ranking prelate to be directly implicated in child sex abuse since the outbreak of the global scandal enveloping the Roman Catholic church.
Shortly after the Vatican announced that the pope had accepted his resignation , Roger Vangheluwe, the bishop of the Flemish city of Bruges, said that before he took over his diocese “and for a short time afterwards, I sexually abused a young boy close to me”.
In a letter read to a press conference, the 73-year-old prelate, who was not present, said what he had done more than 25 years ago “marked the victim forever”.
“The wound does not heal. Neither for me, nor for the victim,” he said.
Vangheluwe, who was consecrated a bishop in 1985, said he had several times begged for the forgiveness of the victim and his family – apparently to no avail.
His voice shaking with emotion, the head of the Belgian church and archbishop of Brussels, André-Joseph Léonard, acknowledged that the affair would have a painful effect on Belgian Catholics. “We are aware of the crisis of confidence that this is going to engender in a number of people,” he said.
Vangheluwe’s departure shattered the hopes of Vatican officials that the scandal could at last be contained. The affair had seemed to reach a turning point last weekend when, on a visit to Malta, Pope Benedict held a tearful meeting of reconciliation with abuse victims.
On Thursday, in an apparent confirmation of the Vatican’s new hard line, he accepted the resignation of James Moriarty, the bishop of Kildare and Leighlin in Ireland, who was accused in an official report of hushing up abuse cases. But yesterday the pope’s own past record was again called into question.
One of his cardinals said that before his election to the papacy, the pope had attended a meeting at which it was agreed to praise a French bishop for shielding a priest convicted of raping minors. In an interview in his native Colombia, Dario Castrillón Hoyos, who headed the Vatican department that deals with the clergy, said that a letter he wrote to the French bishop in 2001 was the product of a meeting in the Vatican.
“It was a meeting of cardinals. Therefore the current pope, who at that time was a cardinal, was present,” he said.
After the letter came to light, Castrillón said the last pope, John Paul II, had approved it and recommended that it be circulated – as it was – to all Catholic bishops. “The law in nations with a well-developed judiciary does not force anyone to testify against a child, a father, against other people close to the suspect,” Castrillón told his interviewer. “Why would they ask that of the church?”
His view was at odds with Vatican guidelines published last week, which make clear that bishops are expected to report clerical sex abuse to the authorities if required to do so by law. Church officials say the guidelines have been in force since 2003 – two years after John Paul II ordered that all such cases should be handled by the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, the department headed by his successor, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
In a series of legal actions concerning abuse that dates from before then, the Vatican’s representatives have argued that the responsibility lies solely with the relevant diocese. But a new suit filed in the United States seeks for the first time to pin the blame on the Vatican, claiming that it exercises “unqualified power” over the Catholic church down to the level of its parishes.
The suit was filed on Thursday by Jeff Anderson, an attorney in St Paul, Minnesota. He argues that top officials in the Vatican, including Ratzinger, knew about claims of sex abuse at a school for deaf children near Milwaukee, and that they blocked the punishment of the accused priest, Lawrence Murphy.
Murphy, who died in 1998, is accused of molesting up to 200 boys between 1950 and 1974. The defendants in the lawsuit are the pope, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who was his deputy at the congregation for the doctrine of the faith and is now his top official, and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Bertone’s predecessor.