The release last Friday of a report on sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy in Belgium added to Pope Benedict’s burdens as he prepares for his imminent visit to Britain.

The 200-page report was compiled by Peter Adriaenssens, a psychiatric specialist in paedophilia, as chair of a commission set up by Belgium’s Catholic bishops. The commission received 475 complaints of child abuse committed between the 1950s and 1980s by Catholic clergy, most cases belonging to the 1960s and 1970s, and affecting virtually every congregation.

The report contains testimonies from some 124 anonymous victims, revealing that for most, the abuse began at the age of 12, reports the London Telegraph. It notes a “high number of suicides” with 13 deaths and six attempts attributed to abuse by a cleric. There were some harrowing testimonies, said Adriaenssens:

“None of us was prepared for the severity of some of the accounts of abuse that we were given. All of us at one time questioned our faith in God, the Church and humanity.”

However, there was no evidence of a systematic cover-up by the Church, the commission concluded.

Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi told Belgium TV the Pope is following the conduct of the Belgium Catholic Church “very closely”.

“Like everybody, he feels much pain after the publication of the report, which again reveals the huge suffering of victims and gives us an even more vivid sense of the gravity of the crimes,” Fr Lombardi said.

Meanwhile, the Telegraph reports:

Guy Harpigny, the bishop of Tournai and the senior cleric responsible for rooting out sex abusers within the Belgian church’s ranks, has further inflamed outrage by confessing that financial concerns over litigation stopped an official apology.

“We did not dare. If you officially apologise, then you are acknowledging moral and legal responsibility. Then there are people who ask for money and we don’t know what lawyers and the courts will do about that,” he said.

Most of the testimony to the Belgian commission followed the forced resignation in April of the bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, who admitted having sexually abused his nephew between 1973 and 1986. The former head of Belgium’s Catholic Church, Cardinal Godfried Daneels, has said that it was only then that he became aware of the scale of sexual abuse in the Church. The retired cardinal has been accused of trying to hush up the Vangheluwe case.

The present head of the Belgian church, Cardinal Andre-Joseph Leonard said “a feeling of anger and powerlessness” had taken hold of the church and he has asked for patience while the church responds to the victims of abuse.

On Thursday, just before the abuse report was released, the Belgian Court ruled that raids in June on church headquarters, the office of Peter Adriaenssens and the home of Cardinal Daneels were illegal and that documents seized then could not be considered as valid evidence in any trial.

While the bishops are responding to the abuse victims, they should not neglect to address some other fundamental issues undermining the Belgian Church. 

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet