(Reuters) – Belgium’s Justice Minister urged the Vatican on Friday to impose stiff punishment on a disgraced Catholic bishop who denies being a paedophile despite admitting to sexually abusing two of his own nephews. Stefaan de Clerck spoke out amid a media uproar after former Bruges Bishop Roger Vangheluwe defended himself on television by saying the abuse he committed was only “superficial.”
Vangheluwe, who quit his post and went into hiding a year ago, after admitting to molesting a nephew, confessed in the interview Thursday that he had molested a second one. He left Belgium last week under Vatican orders to seek “spiritual and psychological treatment” abroad and Belgian media say he is now in a French monastery. The Vatican has said the final decision on disciplining him lies with Pope Benedict.
“The Church must take up this case and see what sanction it should impose. It should be much more severe and much more complete than what has been said up until now,” De Clerck, a Christian Democrat, told RTL radio. “We expect the Church to punish him,” he said. “They told him to leave the country — that was also to shut him up. Making comments trying to minimise what happened is unacceptable.”
The Vatican has been reluctant to impose stiff punishments on bishops found guilty of covering up sexual abuse of youths by priests under their authority. Three bishops in Ireland and one in Germany have resigned but others accused of mismanagement have held onto their jobs.
Vangheluwe is the only admitted sexual abuser among the disgraced bishops and risks being defrocked if the Vatican should decide to impose the stiff punishment that Catholic critics of the hierarchy say are needed. Clearly exasperated at the Church’s defensive response to the scandals sapping its moral authority, De Clerck also called on the Belgian Catholic hierarchy to compensate abuse victims as recommended by a parliamentary commission.
Brussels Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard, who is head of the Belgian bishops’ conference, has caused controversy by saying the Church had no obligation to compensate victims. In his interview, Vangheluwe told VT4 television he was sorry for molesting his nephews but did not consider himself a paedophile or see the acts as anything serious. “It had nothing to do with sexuality,” he said. “I have often been involved with children and I never felt the slightest attraction. It was a certain intimacy that took place. I don’t have the impression at all that I am a paedophile. It was really just a small relationship. I did not have the feeling that my nephew was against it, quite the contrary.”