Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Belgian Catholic Leader Says Church Does Not Have To Compensate Sex Abuse Victims
Subscribe :The controversial prelate appointed less than a year ago by Pope Benedict XVI to push the liberal-leaning Catholic Church in Belgium in a more conservative direction has sparked yet another uproar by telling a government commission that the church has no obligation to compensate victims of sexual abuse by priests.

"The civil court must determine the compensation and the offender [the accused priest] must pay," Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard of Mechelen-Brussels told a parliamentary commission in testimony three days before Christmas.

According to the National Catholic Reporter, which reported from Brussels on the testimony, commission members reacted with "surprised amazement" to Léonard's comments and the exchange with the archbishop deteriorated from there.

The parliamentary commission was created after a church-backed inquiry last September turned up more than 475 cases of abuse by priests and lay workers since the 1950s. At least 13 of the victims committed suicide. As has happened in other European countries over the past year, the revelations scandalized Belgians and led to the government probe.

But unlike prelates in other countries, the Belgian church leadership, led by Léonard, has pushed back against the investigation. Léonard, however, has no reservoir of good will with the public to draw on. The archbishop has regularly criticized the lifestyles of Belgians and in particular of homosexuals, calling homosexuality "abnormal" and most recently saying AIDS was a kind of divine "justice" for promiscuity.

In November, Léonard's own spokesman resigned, comparing the archbishop to a "reckless driver" who rejected all advice and sought out controversy.

During the parliamentary commission hearings on Dec. 22, Léonard seemed to live up to that reputation. According to NCR, he "appeared defiant and at times took sarcastic swipes" at the whole process.

"Where will it all end up?" Archbishop Léonard asked. "Pretty soon authorities will ask for compensation for [unhappy] children resulting from [in vitro fertilization]...And what about the studies showing the psychological impact on children who have two papas or two mamas?" he said, referring to same-sex marriage "Will we have to compensate them as well?"

Compounding the shock of Léonard's testimony was that he had been expected to present the outline of a compensation package. A day earlier Léonard's predecessor, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, seemed to prepare the ground for a conciliatory presentation when he said the Belgian church must be humble about its sins and provide compensation to victims.

"For too long," Danneels said, "the church thought only about itself and about its priests and now it is time to think about the victims of sexual abuse."

The day after appearing before the commission, Léonard appeared to try to make amends by announcing that he would voluntarily donate to a "solidarity fund" for victims of sexual abuse. But he insisted contributions could not be compulsory and he said that other "respectable professions," like medicine and sports, should contribute as well "because abuse is not a monopoly of the church."

Jürgen Mettepenningen, Léonard's former spokesman, told NCR that Léonard "just can't leave it alone. If you are invited to give testimony before a parliamentary commission on the sexual abuse of children, you have to choose your words carefully...This is incomprehensible and very painful."

It could be painful for Léonard as well. In Belgium, the government pays the salaries of all priests and bishops, and the salaries for teachers in Catholic schools. In the wake of the revelations and Archbishop Léonard's intransigence, some government officials have suggested that financial arrangement could be revised.

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