The Catholic Church in Belgium yesterday promised to open a rehabilitation centre for child abuse victims after an investigation found that hundreds of young people were raped and assaulted by its priests over the past 40 years.
In a stark admission on the eve of Pope Benedict's visit to Britain, Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard confessed that the abuse scandal engulfing Belgium had caused a "shiver" to run through his church. The archbishop was speaking in response to the publication last week of a harrowing dossier of evidence which concluded that sexual abuse occurred in virtually every congregation and Catholic establishment within Belgium.
Investigators working for an independent commission say they have now received 475 complaints from victims and that 13 people abused by clergy were known to have committed suicide. Most of the abuse occurred in the 1960s and 1970s to children older than 12 although one victim was just two years old.
Archbishop Léonard promised yesterday to engage with those who had been abused. But there was concern among some victims that the church had yet to lay down any clear guidelines on how it will find and punish abusive priests that are still alive. The only major concrete offer given to abuse victims so far is the creation of a "recognition, reconciliation and healing" centre which church officials said they hoped to have open by the end of the year.
But the archbishop has pleaded for time to set up a system to punish all abusers and provide closure for victims. "The report and the suffering it contains make us shiver," he told reporters. "It was impressive, perplexing but also very positive. It was exactly what we wanted – transparency and that truth come to light. The challenge is so big and touches on so many emotions, it seems impossible to us to present a new proposal in all its details (now)."
With fresh sex abuse scandals erupting this year in parts of Western Europe, the United States and Latin America, many eyes will be firmly fixed on how the Vatican and its local church hierarchies respond.
Previous abuse scandals in North America and Ireland were mired by accusations that the church surrounded itself in a culture of secrecy that favoured confidentiality agreements and the protection of paedophile priests above transparency, institutional reform and the needs of its victims.
In Britain, there is still anger over the raft of confidentiality agreements that were signed between the church and some of its victims – although the child protection reforms that were brought in by the church have been praised and recommended as a blueprint for other local churches to use.
Police in Belgium are under acute pressure to respond efficiently to the abuse accusations which exploded on to the national agenda in April when the Bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, resigned after admitting he had sexually abused his nephew.
The country's law enforcement agencies were widely condemned for their failure to catch prolific paedophile and serial killer Marc Dutroux earlier in the decade and were completely reorganised in response. The criminal investigation into clerical paedophilia, however, has been thrown into doubt after a raid on a Belgium church in June was deemed by a court to be illegal. The Vatican issued an angry response to the raids at the time.
The church response to the crisis has also been muddied by revelations that a senior Cardinal begged the victim of Bishop Vangheluwe not to disclose that he had been abused until after the bishop retired. The pleas were secretly recorded by the bishop's nephew and made available to the Belgium media last month.