14 years after confessing to assaulting his nephew, a Belgian bishop was defrocked

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A well-known Belgian bishop who acknowledged, 14 years prior to having sexually molested his nephew without consequence was defrocked by Pope Francis on Thursday.

Long ago, the story of Bruges’s emeritus bishop Roger Vangheluwe came to represent the dysfunction and hypocrisy of the Catholic Church in handling abuse allegations. After the controversy surfaced in 2010, he was not only let to quietly retire but his boss, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, was also seen on camera pleading with one of his victims to conceal his abuse until the bishop resigned.

A few months before the pope is scheduled to visit Belgium, where the issue would have been an unwanted and difficult diversion, the Vatican announced that Francis had laicized Vangheluwe.

When it was revealed that Vangheluwe, then 87, had sexually molested his young nephew for more than a dozen years while serving as a priest and then a bishop, the man became viral on a global scale in 2010. Later on, he acknowledged abusing a second nephew as well. He never stopped trivializing his misdeeds, calling his abuse “a little game” that didn’t include “rough play.”

He did not get any additional penalties but was permitted to retire two years before the typical retirement age. It was proof that the Holy See had generally refused to censure Catholic bishops at the time, even for confessed sexual offenses.

In a statement released on Thursday, the Vatican embassy in Belgium said that “severe new elements” that were submitted to the Holy See’s ministry on sexual abuse in recent months warranted restarting the investigation.

What fresh information had been received was not specified. However, the bishops of Belgium have become more vocal in recent months about their purported displeasure at the Vatican’s alleged failure to act against Vangheluwe.

Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp told VRT, a Belgian television, in September that the Belgian bishops had been pleading with the Vatican for years to defrock Vangheluwe both in person and in writing, but they had received no response.

The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith handed the case to Francis on March 8 following the hearing of Vangheluwe’s defense, according to a statement released by the Vatican embassy. It stated that Francis chose to accept the suggestion that Vangheluwe be laicized after three days. Though it is the worst punishment the Vatican can impose, Vangheluwe is now reduced to layman status and is no longer allowed to identify as a priest.

According to the statement, he requested permission to live in a retreat home “without any contact with the world” in order to devote his time to prayer and penitence.

The Vatican’s tardy laicization, according to Lieve Halsberghe, a Belgian advocate for abuse survivors, did not bring justice to Vangheluwe’s victims and was merely a “PR stunt” in advance of Francis’ visit to Leuven later this year, where the pope is scheduled to celebrate the 600th anniversary of Belgium’s Catholic university.

“Charges were never filed because Vangheluwe is protected in high places, despite images of child sexual abuse being discovered on the man’s computer in 2011,” Halsberghe told The Associated Press. “After 14 years of back-and-forth with letters to and from the Vatican, the gesture made today is nothing more than a publicity stunt orchestrated by the Belgian bishops,” the Vatican said.

Although Vangheluwe was never charged with a crime in Belgium because his acts were past the statute of limitations, the scandal turned out to be a turning point for the 11.5 million-strong predominantly Roman Catholic country.

Following the disclosures, a special committee issued a report detailing horrific tales of hundreds of victims—some as young as two years old—being molested by Catholic clergy, which the commission claimed was the cause of at least thirteen suicides. Despite the fact that the abuse was actually far worse, many victims were still unwilling to speak, according to the commission’s head.

The issue is far from over: this week, demonstrators staged an outside demonstration outside the French Catholic community where Vangheluwe moved after retiring; the Belgian government is also holding hearings on abuse.

One of the demonstrators brandished a sign that said, “Justice kneels before the church.”