A former Belgian church leader privately urged a victim of sexual abuse to remain silent this past spring, at a time when the Vatican was denying the scope and scale of a pedophile scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church to its core.
The April 8 conversation, captured on tapes published this weekend and confirmed by church authorities as genuine, offers a rare glimpse into a transaction between church officials and victims in what has been described as a widespread practice of hushing pedophile cases.
Cardinal Godfried Danneels is heard telling the victim, a nephew of Bishop Robert Vangheluwe, “The bishop will resign next year, so actually it would be better for you to wait… I don’t think you would do yourself or him a favor by shouting this from the rooftops.”
Taped April 8 meeting
The tapes came from an April 8 meeting between Cardinal Danneels, Bishop Vangheluwe, and the unidentified victim to discuss how to proceed in an instance of sexual abuse the victim had long tried to report. The case was long ignored until media organizations in Ireland and Germany, as well as The New York Times, revealed a broad pattern of pedophilia by priests that went well beyond Catholic clergy in the United States.
In the taped conversation, published Saturday by the Belgian dailies Het Nieuwsblad and De Standaard, the victim asks for help in reporting the case. But Danneels – the former archbishop of Brussels who ordained Vangheluwe as bishop of Bruges in December 1984 but left his post in January – says he is not in a position to report the case to church authorities or Pope Benedict.
Danneels asked the victim to accept a private apology from Vangheluwe and not "drag his name through the mud" – at least until the bishop retired, which he was expected to do in the coming year. The victim replied, “He [Vangheluwe] has dragged my whole life through the mud, from 5 until 18 years old… Why do you feel sorry for him and not for me?”
Vangheluwe resigned on April 23, admitting that he had illicit relations with a “boy in my close entourage.”
The resignation followed a threatening e-mail to Belgian bishops from someone close to the nephew, calling for Vangheluwe to step down or risk exposure of his misdeeds.
The bishop’s resignation, which came two weeks after the April 8 meeting and two days after Pope Benedict XVI vowed action on sexual abuse of children by priests, followed weeks of a Vatican campaign to downplay the Catholic sex abuse scandal and to attack news organizations for exaggerating pedophilia claims. Pope Benedict later asked forgiveness for the church.
In an April 19 address to a Belgian college, Vangheluwe stated, "I think you need to be well informed about these things... Yes it [pedophilia] is embarrassing... but there have been articles implying that pedophilia is nowhere so little prevalent than in the church," he said, according to a report in De Standaard.
In an April 21 edition of Church and Life, a Flemish Catholic monthly, the bishop writes that "everywhere there are stories of priests abusing children. It is horrible to see these things surface and they hurt us deeply. This shouldn't blind us from the fact that the majority of priests lead exemplary lives."
Why nephew released tapes
Media outlets in Belgium and Luxembourg, citing church sources, have reported that the victim has received monetary compensation for years from the bishop; the victim has said he released the tapes to show that he hadn’t attempted to blackmail his uncle.
The New York Times reported this summer that the victim's family was angered that Danneels, rather than the new archbishop of Brussels, Andre-Joseph Leonard, met in April to discuss the case.
The Times also reported that a retired Belgian priest, Rev. Rik Deville, said he had earlier tried to make the the victim’s case known to church authorities, but was “berated for doing so.”
The bishop’s resignation and admission set off a chain of events in Belgium that led to hundreds of people coming forward to report abuse to an official commission. It was also followed by Belgian police raids on a bishops meeting and on Danneels' home.
The Belgian daily Le Soir reported in August that a significant number of Catholics in the country have asked to be taken off census rolls that identify them as Catholics when they are baptized as infants. Similar reports have come from Ireland and Austria, countries where priestly abuse of children has also been widely discovered. Most of the reported cases took place in the 1970s through the 1990s.