05 October 2023, The Tablet

Frustration with Rome’s ‘vague’ response to abuser bishops

“Every day seems to bring forth new evidence of abuse, as well as cover up and mishandling by Church leadership around the world.”

Frustration with Rome’s ‘vague’ response to abuser bishops

Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp speaking last Friday about the Belgian bishops’ request o suspend Roger Vangheluwe.

The Vatican faces criticism on multiple fronts – including from its own safeguarding body – for failing to respond to abuse crises.

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors last week issued a damning statement on the Church-wide response to abuse, complaining of “tragically harmful deficiencies in the norms intended to punish abusers and hold accountable those whose duty it is to address wrongdoing”.

“Every day seems to bring forth new evidence of abuse, as well as cover up and mishandling by Church leadership around the world,” said the statement.

“We hear and are disturbed by reports of the actions of individuals holding responsible offices within the Church, the cries of those impacted, as well as the legacy of atrocious behaviour associated with lay and other movements and so many areas of the Church’s institutional life.”

Two bishops have criticised the Vatican’s “vague” responses to cases of abuse in Belgium and France, demanding tougher action against the prelates implicated.

In Belgium, the Flemish television mini-series Gotvergeten (“Forgotten by God”) has uncovered widespread frustration among victims at the relative impunity of a disgraced bishop and prompted calls for his laicisation.

The former Bishop of Bruges Roger Vangheluwe, who stepped down in 2010 after admitting he sexually abused his own nephew and later revealed a second nephew was also a victim, was the main subject in the series about sexual abuse in the Belgian Church.

Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp told VRT television that the 86-year-old Vangheluwe had been asked several times to quit the priesthood or else face laicisation.  Now retired in a French monastery, Vangheluwe recently asked for more time to think it over and had even written a letter to the Vatican.  Bonny had no details of the letter’s content.

“We have asked him ourselves to resign from his positions and have asked Rome to do so several times, the last time in November last year,” Bonny said, referring to the bishops’ most recent ad limina visit.

“But we have not received a response there either and that makes us angry,” he added.  Only the Vatican can laicise a bishop if he refuses to do so himself.

Bonny also had tough words for the late Cardinal Godfried Danneels, who protected Vangheluwe until the first abused nephew secretly taped his meeting with Danneels and publicised it to reveal the scandal.

“He was not a leader, you cannot let this pass. He should have stood up,” Bonny said.

The dispute has prompted some Belgian politicians to ask publicly why the state continues to pay priests’ salaries.

In France, a bishop has protested against a Vatican decree which bans the sexual abuser Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard, 79, from all public ministry for five years except in his home Diocese of Digne, in the Alpine foothills east of Avignon.

“I do not agree that Cardinal Ricard celebrates in Digne diocese...I hope that the sanction will also be applied here,” said Bishop Emmanuel Gobilliard of Digne after the decision was made public.

Ricard, a retired Archbishop of Bordeaux and twice head of the French bishops’ conference, admitted in 2022 he had acted in a “reprehensible” way with a 14-year-old girl 35 years before. He revealed this only after the civil statute of limitations had run out.

Living quietly in the rural diocese since 2019, Ricard remains a cardinal and is still eligible to take part in a Vatican conclave.

His case came back into the headlines last year when he accepted a Vatican request to help investigate sexual abuse accusations against the Foyers de Charité movement.  A former victim protested against his role.

The statement from the pontifical commission called for “robust reforms” in the handling of abuse and complained that “deep frustrations remain” in its relationship with the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, to which it belongs in the Vatican structure.

It also asked that the Synod on Synodality which began yesterday dedicate “meaningful time” to discussion of abuse and safeguarding.

“There can be little effective change in this area without the pastoral conversion of Church leaders,” the statement said.

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