31 January 2024, The Tablet

Belgian Church protests ‘debaptism’ order amid abuse outcry

The number of “debaptism” requests have reportedly spiked again after the television series Gotvergeten.

Belgian Church protests ‘debaptism’ order amid abuse outcry

Belgian bishops at the consecration of Archbishop Luc Terlinden of Brussels (second from right) in September – the same month that a documentary on Church abuse provoked public anger.
Belga News Agency / Alamy

The Belgian Church, facing rising protests after a television film on sexual abuse and cover-ups in its ranks, has appealed against a government data protection agency ruling that the Diocese of Ghent must let a person be “debaptised”.   

When Catholics ask to have their names struck from baptismal records, officials usually add a note to their files saying they have renounced their baptism without taking the name off its official registry.

The Church considers baptism a permanent act that cannot be done away with, but the agency ruled in December that the plaintiff’s personal data record overrides the Church’s interest in preserving its records.

The number of “debaptism” requests had been falling since a peak of 5,237 in 2021, when the Vatican said it could not bless same-sex unions, but they have reportedly spiked again after the television series Gotvergeten (“Forgotten by God”) last September depicted the scandals in Belgium. 

“We were very surprised by the decision, as the Data Protection Authority in Ireland had decided the opposite a few months ago in a complaint against the Archdiocese of Dublin,” Church spokesperson Geert De Kerpel told the church news site Kerknet.

“Data protection is European law. A similar case may not comply with privacy legislation in one European country and conflict with it in another.”

In Germany, where the state collects Kirchensteuer (church tax) for churches, individuals can officially leave the church and therefore not pay the tax, but their baptism entry remains. 

Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, discussing preparations for a planned papal visit this year, has once again urged the apostolic nuncio to have the former Bishop of Bruges Roger Vangheluwe stripped of his episcopal rank.

Vangheluwe was dismissed from his see in 2010 for sexually abusing his nephew, who was a minor at the time, but he remains an ordained bishop. Belgian bishops have repeatedly asked the Vatican to laicise Vangheluwe, who lives in seclusion in a French monastery, but have not received a response.

Bruno Spriet, the general secretary of the Belgian bishops’ conference, addressed a Flemish parliamentary inquiry into sexual abuse on 26 January, saying that the Vatican was “aware of the magnitude of the scandal” and was working to address Vangheluwe’s case.

“It will be difficult for Pope Francis to make a peaceful visit to our country in September until there is clarity on this matter,” he said.

“Moreover, we have insisted from the outset that during that visit the necessary time and space be provided for a personal meeting between Pope Francis and victims who wish to speak to him. We cannot imagine a papal visit without such a meeting.”

The Archbishop of Brussels Luc Terlinden and the Bishop of Antwerp Johan Bonny also testified before the inquiry. Bonny said the Church was ready to “collaborate on a plan for the development of professional therapeutic support and to make it financially accessible”.

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