Church in dock over new child sex bishop revelations

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The Roman Catholic Church was on the rack Friday as Belgium reacted with revulsion to new child sex abuse horrors admitted by an ex-bishop the Vatican sent into exile rather than face justice.

Roger Vangheluwe told Belgian television that he abused one nephew for 13 years and another for nearly 12 months -- but that there was "no penetration" and that he didn't "in the slighest" think he was a paedophile.

Days after the Vatican ordered that Vangheluwe undergo "spiritual and psychological treatment" in France, Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme said his remarks "go beyond the boundary of what is acceptable."

"The Church must assume its responsibilities -- this cannot go on," Leterme said.

Belgium's bishops expressed collective "shock" at remarks "playing down" and "offering excuses" for his behaviour, and a Thursday night media appearance they said contravened Vatican orders.

"We trusted him to withdraw in silence abroad," a statement said.

"How dare this man keep showing up on television," cried Flemish newspaper Gazet van Antwerpen.

"He should not be in a French abbey, but in a jail cell or in a psychiatric institution," it insisted.

"How did it start?," Vangheluwe said in the interview. "As in all families: when they came to visit, my nephews would stay over.

"It began as a kind of game with this boy. It was never a question of rape, or physical violence. He never saw me naked and there was no penetration.

"I don't in the slightest have any sense I am a paedophile. I don't get the impression my nephew was opposed, quite the contrary," he added -- before admitting: "I knew it wasn't good, I confessed it several times."

He said the abuse ended when the family learned of it, but that they agreed to keep it under wraps. Vangheluwe says he paid millions of old Belgian francs to the victim.

He could not say whether exile amounted to a Vatican "sentence," noting only he had to "talk regularly" with a designated psychiatrist and reiterating an earlier defence that the abuse "ended 25 years ago."

He had been able to "work very well" as a priest up until he quit, he added.

Belgian justice minister Stefaan De Clerck said the comments were a "slap in the face" for all victims.

The head of a detailed parliamentary inquiry meanwhile slammed "protection" for Vangheluwe by the church hierarchy.

Socialist Karine Lalieux, probing a decades-long scandal of sex abuse by Belgian priests and lay workers covering more than 500 victims and 13 known suicides, wants Vangheluwe "one day" to "face justice in his country and answer to his crimes."

Backing mounting calls for the church to compensate victims and cooperate with prosecutors, she accuses Rome of applying "pseudo-sanctions" designed to protect the church, and said it "wanted to cover up his responsibility."

Vangheluwe resigned as bishop of Bruges last year after admitting sexually abusing one nephew between 1973 and 1986, blowing the lid on an unprecedented catalogue of abuse after similar scandals in the United States and Germany.

The church in Belgium fought a rearguard legal action last year to prevent material seized in massive police raids criticised by Pope Benedict XVI from being used by prosecutors.

Spokesman Federico Lombardi said this week that the Vatican had not taken a "final decision" on Vangheluwe's fate, and that it was considering "the requirements of the justice system."

Vangheluwe's replacement as the bishop of Bruges, Jozef De Kesel, said the "shame" of Vangheluwe's latest tales of furtive nights and days under the covers had now sucked in the church as well as his victims.

"I'm not speaking about our image," he said, "but about our credibility."

Bishop of Tournai Guy Harpigny added of Vangheluwe: "This is a sick man speaking, either that or it's the standard reaction of a paedophile."

Any decision to defrock the former bishop rests ultimately with the pope.

© 2011 AFP

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