Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Belgian bishops to talk to pope about sex abuse

Last updated May 3, 2010 9:12 a.m. PT

Belgian bishops to talk to pope about sex abuse

VATICAN CITY -- Belgian bishops stung by sex abuse revelations began a series of meetings at the Vatican on Monday that will culminate in talks later this week with Pope Benedict XVI.

Benedict will sit down with the bishops Friday to talk with the churchmen about what the archbishop of Brussels called the "painful" case of the Bruges bishop who resigned last month with a sorrowful admission that he had sexually abused a boy for years.

Bishops from around the world are summoned to Rome every five years to personally review with the pontiff matters of mutual concern, and the Belgian prelates' meeting with Benedict was long scheduled.

But with clergy abuse scandals breaking into the open in a string of Western European countries in past weeks, damage-control efforts are starting to top what otherwise could be routine discussions of long-running issues of local church concern such as immigration on the continent.

"We will surely touch on the painful questions that were posed in our country after the resignation of the bishop of Bruges," Brussels Archbishop Andre Leonard said in an interview with Vatican Radio before the weeklong visit at the Vatican.

Bruges Bishop Roger Vangheluwe stepped down last month, expressing sorrow in a statement for having abused the child for years.

"It is inevitable that we talk about this issue and about the measures that we count on taking to face this situation," Leonard said.

Leonard himself has been accused in the Belgian media of covering up a case of church abuse in the 1990s, but has denied the allegation.

The Belgium clergy abuse scandal has even overshadowed the collapse of the Belgian government, with nearly every day bringing new witness accounts and reports of attempts to hush up abuse.

"It is an extremely difficult moment (to come to Rome) but perhaps appropriate to see where we are at," Leonard's spokesman, the Rev. Eric De Beukelaer, told Belgium's VRT network Monday. "Obviously the meeting will have a charged atmosphere."

Belgium's bishops began their visit to Vatican City with prayers and a Mass before the tomb of Pope John Paul II in the crypt of St. Peter's Basilica. Next, the first stop on a long list of meetings with senior Vatican officials was a meeting at the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, the Vatican arm handling media.

But while the spreading abuse scandals pose a public relations nightmare for the Vatican, the Belgian bishops are grappling with an even bigger challenge - how to hold on to the rank-and-file flock.

The Belgian bishops conference said late last week about Belgium's Catholics that "understandably, many fear losing their faith."

In the early weeks of the scandal staining several Western European churches, including Benedict's own homeland, Germany, the Vatican tried a strategy of depicting itself as a victim, saying anti-Catholic lobbies were targeting the pope for such conservative stands as prohibition of same-sex marriage and abortion.

But with surveys showing abuse revelations are shaking Catholic faith in Western Europe - 19 percent of faithful polled this spring in Germany said the scandal has made them think of abandoning the church - the Vatican and the pope have been making more pro-active moves, although Benedict has ignored victims' call that he take responsibility for cover-ups.

The tendered resignations of two Irish bishops accused of covering up child abuse by Dublin clergy have been sitting on the pope's desk since December. But recently, Benedict did accept the resignation of a third Irish bishop identified in an Irish government-ordered probe of decades of cover-ups of child-abusing clergy in the Dublin archdiocese.

And Benedict met last month in a special meeting with German bishops to discuss a high-profile bishop's resignation in Germany.

Critics say the pope himself helped perpetuate a culture of secrecy, both when he was Munich archbishop Joseph Ratzinger, and later in his long tenure as held of the Vatican office dealing with abuse allegations.

While nearly all of the bishops or cardinals implicated in the scandals have been accused of being part of a systemic cover-up of pedophilia and other abuse, the Bruges bishop himself admitted to himself abusing a child, a boy from among his circle of acquaintances.

Revealing that case was a retired Belgian priest who said when he realized a bishop was involved in abuse, he turned to the prelate who was then Belgium's top churchman, Cardinal Godfried Danneels.

Danneels, who was replaced upon retirement by Leonard, has said he cannot recall being told about the Bruges bishop.


Associated Press writer Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.

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