(Photo: Cardinal Danneels arrives at federal police headquarters
in Brussels July 6, 2010 for questions about allegations of sexual abuse by priests/Stringer)
“Why do you feel so sorry for him and not for me?” — Victim of sexual abuse by a Belgian bishop to Cardinal Godfried Danneels.
The transcripts of two meetings between Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels and a man sexually abused by the disgraced former bishop of Bruges make for sad reading indeed. Two Flemish-language newspapers, De Standaard and Het Nieuwsblad, published the texts on Saturday after the victim provided them with his secret recordings of the sessions. My analysis of the case is here.
Apart from the exchanges they reveal, the transcripts are sobering because of the context of the meeting. It took place on April 8, at a time when the series of clerical sexual abuse revelations that began in Ireland the previous year was tearing through Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Austria like a tornado. Pope Benedict had issued an unprecedented apology to the Irish for the scandals only shortly before. Church leaders all over were vowing to end the Church’s culture of secrecy and put the victims’ welfare above the defence of the clergy. If there was any time to simply say, “OK, he has to go. We have to report this,” this was it.
(Photo: U.S. victims’ group protests at the Vatican, March 25, 2010/Alessandro Bianchi)
It’s a sad end for the career of a leading Catholic cardinal, a grandfatherly man who spent 30 years as primate of the Belgian Church and stepped down last January amid wide popular support (except from conservatives who denounced him as too liberal).
There’s also an almost comic side to this story. When Belgian police swooped down on Church offices and Danneels’s apartment in late June to seize files and computers for abuse records, they also searched two tombs of deceased archbishops in the Mechelen cathedral crypt because someone suggested the cardinal had hidden some incriminating documents down there. They found nothing but the previous primates’ remains. Little did they know a real bombshell was elsewhere, on the tape the bishop’s victim had made.
In the published transcripts of that meeting, the unnamed victim, now 42, told Danneels he could no longer keep quiet about how his uncle, Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, sexually abused him between the ages of 5 and 18. He says Vangheluwe could not remain in office and the case must be reported to the Church hierarchy, but he doesn’t know how to do this.
(Photo: Police outside the office of the Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels during raid there, June 24, 2010./Eric Vidal)
“What do you really want?” asks Danneels, cutting the victim off by saying he already knows the story and doesn’t need to hear it again. When the man says “I give you the responsibility, I can’t decide … you should do what you think should be done, because I don’t know how this whole system works.”
“Do you want this to be made public?” the cardinal asks. “I leave that to you,” the victim responds. Then Danneels begins his effort to convince him to keep the lid on the problem: “The bishop will step down next year, so actually it would be better for you to wait.”
“No, I can’t agree that he takes his leave in glory, I can’t do that,” the victim replies.
The transcript is too long for me to translate all of it here and the only English version I’ve seen is too rough to be recommended. In any case, the exchange only gets worse. At one point, Danneels ducks and weaves trying to fend off the victim’s pleas to inform the Church hierarchy about Vangheluwe’s misdeeds. He says he has no authority over the bishop, only the pope does. When the victim suggests Danneels arrange a meeting with the pope, the cardinal gives the flip reply: “The pope isn’t that easy to reach.” A little later, he says: “I don’t think you’d do yourself or him a favor by shouting this from the rooftops.”
(Photo: Danneels in Mechelen December 15, 2009/Thierry Roge)
At another point, Danneels suggests the victim admit his guilt and ask for forgiveness. “Who do I have to ask forgiveness from?” the surprised man asks. When the cardinal remarks that going public would put the bishop in a quandry, the victim replies: “I’ve been living my whole life in a quandry … I was brought up Catholic. I see the institution is wavering, I read the newspapers and so I think I have a duty to do this. How can I get my children to believe something that has such a background? I can’t. That’s just always shoving it onto the next generation. And everything stays the same. That’s not what the Church is for.”
When Danneels suggests the victim may be trying to blackmail the Church, the man pleads with him to take up this case, saying there has to be someone in the Church who can handle it because he cannot bring himself to expose his uncle on his own. “We were forced to get married by him, our children were baptised by him, how can I explain this to them?” he asked. “Yesterday I said to my oldest son, look, this is what happened to me. They must know what has happened.”
The exchange goes on with Danneels repeatedly arguing he has no power to do anything and that the whole story would come out if Vangheluwe were forced to resign. That’s when the victim asked: “Why do you feel so sorry for him and not for me? … You’re always trying to defend him. I thought I was going to get some support, but I have to sit here and defend myself against things I can’t do anything about.”
(Photo: Bishop Vangheluwe, November 7, 2006/Edwin Fontaine)A second tape recorded the subsequent meeting Danneels held with Vangheluwe, the victim and a relative of the victim. In it, the bishop admits his guilt, begs for pardon and says speaking about the case felt liberating because it had weighed down on him for over 20 years as he tried to find a solution. “This is unsolvable,” the relative responds. “You’ve torn our family completely apart.”
Defending Danneels, his spokesman Toon Onsaer said the cardinal wasn’t covering anything up and had already spoken publicly about the meeting at an April 24 news conference. But Danneels said at that event that “the aim of the meeting was that I should listen and that we would eventually come to a conclusion that all could support.” He does not seem to do much listening in this exchange. Instead, it sounds like the stonewalling many other victims have reported from their confrontations with churchmen.
It’s not clear what comes next. Danneels has already retired as Brussels archbishop, so he can’t be called on to resign. The statute of limitations on Vangheluwe’s misdeeds has run out. The official inquiry into the scandals looks near collapse following reports that the spectacular raids on Church offices were illegal and evidence gathered from them cannot be used.