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Belgian Catholic leader under fire for paedophile remarks

The head of the Belgian Catholic church, reeling from a major child abuse scandal, came under fire Thursday for asking for mercy for elderly priests facing allegations of paedophilia.

Political leaders slammed Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard, a conservative close to Pope Benedict XVI who has headed the Belgian church since January, for saying retired priests should be spared what would be tantamount to “a sort of vengeance.”

The statement was “unacceptable” said lawmakers Karine Lalieux and Valerie Deom, respectively of the French-speaking Socialist party and Flemish liberals, Open VLD.

Priests who abused children in their care, Leonard told RTBF television on Wednesday must be aware of what they have done “but if they’re no longer working, if they have no responsibilities, I’m not sure that exercising a sort of vengeance that will have no concrete result is humane.”

Leonard was making victims feel guilty, “pressuring them against exercising their rights to justice,” the parliamentarians said.

“Appealing for justice is not vengeance.”

Asked by RTBF TV whether it was a good thing to punish abusers, Leonard said “If they’re still active, certainly.”

“But do they (the victims) really want an 85-year-old priest, all of a sudden, pilloried in public?”

The church has been reeling from a paedophile scandal after a church commission last month revealed nearly 500 cases of abuse by priests since the 1950s, including 13 victims who committed suicide.

The archbishop caused an uproar earlier this month when he said AIDS was “a sort of intrinsic justice.”