Bishop Guy Harpigny of Torunai, Belgium

Belgian bishops pledge to pay damages to abuse victims under new plan

By  Jonathan Luxmore, Catholic News Service
  • January 16, 2012

OXFORD, England - Belgium's Catholic bishops pledged a "culture of vigilance" against future sexual abuse by priests and said guilty clergy must compensate their victims even if their crimes are no longer punishable by law.

"We cannot repair the past, but we can take moral responsibility by recognizing sufferings and helping victims recover," Bishops Guy Harpigny of Torunai and Johan Bonny of Antwerp, the church's delegates for abuse, told a Brussels news conference Jan. 12.

"Above all, we ask forgiveness for the suffering we weren't able to prevent, and we commit to treat this problem differently in future."

Days after the announcement, Belgian authorities searched church offices in four dioceses as part of their investigation into whether church officials protected alleged abusers.

Police searched offices of the Diocese of Brugge Jan. 17, a day after conducting similar raids of church offices in the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels and the dioceses of Antwerp and Hasselt, the Associated Press reported.

Peter Rossel, spokesman for the Brugge Diocese, confirmed authorities searched the offices and that church officials cooperated with the investigation.

At their news conference, the bishops introduced a 52-page booklet, "A Hidden Suffering," setting out lessons from the abuse scandal and a "global action plan" to prevent similar "contradictions of the Gospel ethic."

They said church leaders had been "filled with confusion" at the "wave of moving accounts" of abuse and had accepted proposals by a parliamentary commission for a neutral arbitration procedure outside church structures to enable victims to seek financial damages.

"As bishops and religious superiors, we at first maintained silence. But this silence was not indifference and had nothing in common with any wish to conceal the facts," the bishops said.

"It merely showed our bewilderment. We sank our heads in shock and asked very seriously how all of this could have happened."

Belgium's Catholic Church has been dogged by abuse allegations since early 2010, after Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of Brugge resigned following an admission he had molested his nephew.

In its brochure, the bishops' conference said the moment had come for "coherent and energetic action" and a "culture of vigilance."

It added that the church's action plan would include "standing on the side of victims" and "breaking the silence," as well as "not leaving abusers in peace" and being "on the lookout for future prevention."

Speaking Jan. 12 to the Associated Press, Bishop Harpigny said the church had initially urged victims to report crimes to the civil authorities, but now would also impose its own penalties by seeking to make abusive priests apologize and pay damages even if their cases were beyond Belgium's statute of limitations.

He added that the church would consider paying compensation if guilty clergy were unable to pay.

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