“Building new bridges”

Belgium's church has once again promised comprehensive help for victims and transparency in the investigation of abuse allegations. A new center is to provide advice and assistance to victims of clergy sexual abuse.

That was announced by the bishops' conference president, Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard, and two other bishops on Monday (13.09.2010) indicated: "We need to build new bridges between victims and the church, between victims and the judiciary, between the church and the judiciary and other parties involved," said Bishop Guy Harpigny, who is responsible for investigating allegations of abuse in Tournai.

The Belgian church had recently been caught in a maelstrom of accusations that began with the resignation of Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of Bruges in late April. More than 200 victims of clergy abuse came forward to the relevant commission in the wake of the spectacular incident. In its final report presented Friday, the panel concludes all religious orders, all dioceses are affected by abuse cases, such as in Catholic schools or parishes. The director, child psychiatrist Peter Adriaenssens, said at least 13 victims of abuse later committed suicide, according to testimonies.

"If possible by Christmas"
The church's response outlined on Monday: a new center is to help bring about holistic recognition of victims, healing and reconciliation, so to speak. Four experts are to work out the statutes and the working method of the center. "If possible by Christmas" it should stand, according to Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp. The plan, he said, was to bring all sides to the table for the first time, the judiciary and medicine, social services and, of course, the church. Bishops' Conference President Leonard stressed that help for victims must come first – the Adriaenssens report gives goose bumps: "It has happened what should never have happened.

Adriaenssens had spoken of the Belgian church's "Dutroux dossier" when presenting his report – alluding to the case of child molester and murderer Marc Dutroux, who deeply shook Belgium in the late 1990s. The parallel for Adriaenssens: There were omissions over decades also in dealing with abuse. Clergy, religious teachers – they were held in the highest respect in the deeply Catholic Belgium of the 1960s and 1970s. They came to the families on Sunday for lunch, were respected dignitaries in the villages and small towns. It didn't take an organized silence cartel to sweep abuse allegations under the rug. In the meantime, almost all cases are legally time-barred – also in terms of church law.

Many bridges have been broken
To guilty ones Leonard appealed on Monday nevertheless again to admit itself. "My corresponding appeal from the end of April has not really been heard yet," the archbishop admitted. The Belgian bishops, on the other hand, had little to say on Monday about the Adriaenssens report's demand that the church examine more thoroughly which of its structures encourage abuse. Ex-Bishops' Conference spokesman Toon Osaer and others had also echoed that call over the weekend.

Meanwhile, in Belgium, many bridges have indeed been broken on the subject of abuse, or hardly stand up to scrutiny anymore. Victims of abuse felt abused again when in June the Belgian judiciary confiscated the reports they had entrusted to the Commission of Inquiry. Higher judicial authorities meanwhile ordered the return of the files, calling the action unlawful. Other abuse victims do not want the church to be involved at all in investigating the allegations. Parliamentarians meanwhile call for investigative commissions.

It remains to be seen whether the bishops' initiative will actually succeed in bringing victims' needs for dignity, recognition and reparations back into focus. They have often barely featured in recent debates in Belgium.

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Christina Cherry
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