Belgian bishops asked for forgiveness Wednesday from the victims of paedophile priests, and for the Church’s silence on the abuse, in an open letter to the Catholic community.
“To all the victims of sexual abuse, we ask for forgiveness, both for the acts of aggression and for the inadequate treatment of them,” the bishops wrote in a letter to the faithful following a visit to the Vatican.
“The most important consideration must be the security and protection of children. On this point there can be no equivocation,” they said.
Following priest abuse charges in Austria, Germany, Ireland and the United States, the Belgian Church was plunged into a paedophile scandal last month with the veteran bishop of Bruges forced to step down after admitting to sexually abusing a boy in the 1980s.
Roger Vangheluwe, who took up his post as bishop of the Flemish city of Bruges 25 years ago, became the country’s first Catholic bishop to resign in those circumstances.
The case prompted 300 complainants to come forward and give their own stories to an independent committee set up to look into cases of abuse by clerics.
The new Belgian primate, Andre Leonard, has promised a policy of zero tolerance.
The bishops wrote: “We recognise that church officials have not sufficiently taken into account the effect of sexual abuse on minors.”
“With this silence the reputation of the ecclesiastical institution and of its ministers has taken precedence over the dignity of the young victims.
“The abusers were given a fresh chance while the victims carried the scars,” they said.
The bishops also promised to take “concrete measures” in areas such as the selection of priests, and to better monitor them, as well as introduce a code for contact with children, adolescents and other vulnerable people.
The Belgian Church has called on all paedeophile offenders to admit their crimes and for their victims to make complaints.