27 March 2024, The Tablet

Belgian bishop laicised 14 years after abuse exposed

The Belgian Church had warned that the Pope could not go through with his planned visit in September if Vangheluwe was not laicised.

Belgian bishop laicised 14 years after abuse exposed

Roger Vangheluwe during an interview in 2011 when he admitted to abusing his two nephews.
VlaanderenVandaagVT4 / Youtube screenshot

Pope Francis laicised the former Bishop of Ghent Roger Vangheluwe, who resigned his see in 2010 after admitting to sexual abuse of two nephews.  

Recent years have seen a rising tide of public appeals by Church leaders and politicians in Belgium for Rome to defrock him. 

Several bishops told the Vatican in public and private statements that the Pope could not go through with his planned visit to Belgium in September, to attend the 600th anniversary of the Catholic University of Leuven, if Vangheluwe was not laicised. 

Belgian politicians joined the fray, with Prime Minister Alexander De Croo calling for Vangheluwe’s laicisation in January and Justice Minister Paul Van Tigchelt announcing in February that Belgian officials had known since 2012 that many adult pornographic images were found on Vangheluwe’s computer.

It was only after Tigchelt’s announcement that the Vatican asked for a new dossier on the former bishop, who has pleaded his case in private letters to the Pope. The apostolic nuncio to Belgium, Archbishop Franco Coppola, said he assumed Vangheluwe had not made a request to be laicised as the Vatican would have acted promptly on this.

The scandal had come back to haunt the Belgian Church last September, with the television mini-series Gotvergeten (“Forgotten by God”) built around the Vangheluwe case. The scandal also discredited the late Cardinal Godfried Danneels, who was recorded urging one victim to keep quiet until Vangheluwe retired. 

The once-popular bishop has always denied any abuse, saying his behaviour was just “a little game”. Since his acts were beyond the civil statute of limitations, Vangheluwe suffered only a canonical sanction requiring him to withdraw to a monastery. He chose Solesmes Abbey in north-western France.

Last week, a victims’ association demonstrated outside Solesmes. One poster said: “The paedo-criminal Belgian bishop lives here.  We demand he be tried.” They also denounced “a justice system on its knees before the Church”.

Vangheluwe has since moved to another monastery whose name has not been published.

The Brussels nunciature announced the laicisation on 21 March, reporting that “grave new elements” had recently prompted a re-estimation of the case. It gave no explanation why it took more than a decade to laicise Vangheluwe.

Belgium’s bishops welcomed the news, saying it was “scandalous” that he could have officially remained a priest. 

“It has been agreed with the abbey where he resides to this day that he can continue to stay there in isolation. The bishops insisted that he actually do so,” they said.

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