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Belgian Church vows clean slate with abuse victims

Belgium’s Catholic Church sought Monday to heal deep wounds caused to victims of pedophile priests, vowing to listen to those hurt by a scandal that has caused “much pain” to Pope Benedict XVI.

But the plan unveiled by archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard, the head of the Belgian church, disappointed groups representing victims three days after a report revealed an avalanche of abuse cases that led to 13 suicides.

Leonard told a news conference the church would act to grant victims of sexual abuse by priests or church workers “maximum” access to officials, but did not spell out how audiences would be obtained or what could be delivered.

He announced vague plans to create a centre for “recognition, reconciliation and healing” within the church, with a target date for opening of Christmas.

In a bid to restore personal trust, “the first thing we have to regain,” Leonard said the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Belgium has to “listen” to victims and parishioners.

That followed the admission by a bishop who quit that he paid a victim and persistent media allegations of a church cover-up.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the pope was following the situation in Belgium “very closely” after the report by a Church-sponsored commission which revealed decades of abuse by Belgian priests.

“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,” Lombardi told RTL-TVI television.

Following a string of similar scandals notably in Germany, Ireland and the United States, the dam broke in Belgium in April when the disgraced bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, quit having admitted sexually abusing his nephew between 1973 and 1986.

Vangheluwe announced on Sunday that he would now leave the Westvleteren abbey where he had sought refuge for several months to withdraw “to another place, away from the Bruges diocese.”

“As my regrets have only increased, now I see all the harm that my actions caused,” he said then.

Asked if the pope would defrock Vangheluwe, Lombardi said Benedict could consider such a sanction but a decision has not been taken.

“It is a decision that rests solely with the pope,” the spokesman said.

For his part Leonard reiterated a call for guilty priests and church workers to confess their crimes as well as their sins, saying past pleas to come forward had “not really been heard.”

In a bid to “learn the lessons of the errors of the past,” the archbishop said the new, open-door policy was aimed at re-establishing victims’ “dignity” and helping “to heal the suffering they have endured.”

The Church’s plans left an association of victims of sex abuse by priests distinctly underwhelmed and questioned the independence of the reconciliation centre.

“You can’t investigate crimes committed when the body is controlled by the institution itself,” said Human Rights in the Church spokeswoman Lieve Halsberghe.

A 200-page report published Friday by the Commission on Church-related Sexual Abuse Complaints, set up by the Catholic Church, said it had investigated 475 complaints between January and June this year.

Available at www.commissionabus.be, it contains testimonies from some 124 anonymous “survivors” and reveals that the sexual abuse for most victims began at age 12, although one was aged just two.

The justice committee in the federal Belgian parliament will debate the matter on Friday, with Socialists angrily pursuing “bids to privatise justice” by the church with its talk of a new victim support centre.

“The Belgian authorities have not grasped the scale of this seismic shock,” said Belgium’s Greens, who want to see a parliamentary inquiry.

Files seized in raids by Belgian judicial authorities in June have been systematically struck off by judges from admissible evidence.

Meanwhile, Belgian police questioned Monday a convicted Flemish priest who faces fresh complaints of sexual abuse in Canada, but stopped short of an arrest in the absence of extradition moves.

Eric Dejaeger, 63, who worked as a missionary with Inuits in the 1970s, was sentenced in 1990 to five years behind bars for the rape of eight children before being released after 18 months.