Church warned not to breach abusive priests' human rights

The Vatican's fight-back against a lawsuit that names the Pope as a defendant in a sexual abuse scandal was mired yesterday by further revelations of abuse and controversial comments from a senior Catholic cleric defending the church's history of sheltering abusive priests.

As Vatican lawyers in the US moved to shield the Pope from the legal challenge, Belgium's longest-serving bishop announced he was resigning, admitting that he had abused a boy 25 years ago. Roger Vangheluwe, 73, who had served as Bishop of Bruges since 1984, made the announcement as church officials confirmed that they were investigating 20 alleged cases of clerical abuse in Belgium.

In a statement yesterday, the bishop said: "When I was still a simple priest, and for a while when I began as a bishop, I sexually abused a young man in my close entourage. I profoundly regret what I have done and I offer my sincerest apology to the victim, his family, the Catholic community and society in general."

He had a prominent role at the Catholic University of Louvain, where his sermons marked the start of the academic year. Earlier yesterday, a Vatican official claimed in an interview that reporting clerical abusers to the police would breach their human rights.

Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos caused outrage earlier this month when it emerged that he had praised a bishop for protecting a paedophile priest. The 80-year-old Colombian cleric, who was one of the most influential figures in the Vatican until he retired last year, defended the church's history of sheltering abusive priests, saying that handing them over would have been like testifying against a family member.

"The law in nations with a well-developed judiciary does not force anyone to testify against a child, a father, against other people close to the suspect," he told Colombian radio station RCN. He had been asked to explain why he had written to French bishop Pierre Pican in 2001, lauding him for harbouring an abuser who was later jailed for 18 years. "Why would they ask that of the church? That's the injustice. It's not about defending a paedophile. It's about defending the dignity and the human rights of a person, even the worst of criminals."

The cardinal's comments, coupled with such a high-profile resignation, are a difficult footnote to a week that began with a publicity fight-back from the Catholic Church over the global abuse scandals. At his weekly appearance in St Peter's Square on Wednesday, the Pope took the unusual step of talking openly about shedding tears with abuse survivors in Malta.

Yesterday, lawyers in the US, acting for the Vatican, dismissed the lawsuit that named Pope Benedict and top Vatican aides as partially responsible for the sexual abuse of deaf children at a school in Wisconsin. The suit, brought by an anonymous victim of the late serial-paedophile, Father Lawrence Murphy, alleges that the Pope failed to discipline Murphy when the abuse was reported to him and other officials.

At the time of the abuse, the Pope – as Cardinal Ratzinger – was head of the Vatican body charged with investigating abusive priests. But Jeffrey Lena, the Vatican's lawyer in the US, described the case as "completely without merit". "While legitimate lawsuits have been filed by abuse victims, this is not one of them," he said.

Cardinal Hoyos has enraged abuse victims who say the Vatican must do more to account for its failings in dealing with abuse. He has since been dropped as the main celebrant of a Mass in Washington today to mark the fifth anniversary of the Pope's election.

In the same interview, Cardinal Hoyos defended Pope Benedict XVI's predecessor, saying that while the church stood by "those who truly were victims [of sexual abuse] ... John Paul II, that holy pope, was not wrong when he defended his priests so that they were not, due to economic reasons, treated like criminal paedophiles without due process".

Hoyos was made a cardinal in 1998 by Pope John Paul II and was head of the highly influential Congregation for the Clergy until 2006. One of its duties is to oversee complaints from clergy members who claim to have been unfairly punished by their superiors.

Yesterday, the US newspaper, the National Catholic Reporter, published an investigation into the Colombian's time at the congregation, reporting on how he had also intervened on behalf of a paedophile priest in America, against the wishes of his bishop who was trying to defrock him.

Clerics in firing Line

Bishop Roger Vangheluwe

The resignation yesterday of the 73-year-old bishop of Bruges was the first public confirmation that the ongoing sexual abuse scandal in Europe had reached Belgium. Vangheluwe earned a degree in theology and biblical languages at the Catholic University of Louvain before being ordained a priest in 1963. He was made Bishop of Bruges by Pope John Paul II in 1984 and until yesterday was Belgium's longest-serving bishop. In his statement he admitted abusing a boy in the period between becoming a priest and a bishop. Belgian prosecutors have confirmed that there is currently no criminal investigation against him. He is the third Catholic bishop to have offered his resignation this week.

Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos

Renowned in Latin America as a fierce critic of liberation theology and a prominent Vatican conservative. A staunchly orthodox theologian, he headed up the influential Congregation for Clergy as well as playing a key role in trying to persuade dissident ultra- conservatives to return to Rome. Although now retired, his senior position within the Vatican hierarchy means his comments will be a major embarrassment for the church, which recently published guidelines ordering bishops to report abusive priests to police if civil laws require it. The Vatican has claimed that was long its policy, although Cardinal Hoyos's actions while he was head of the Congregation for the Clergy suggest otherwise.

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