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Belgian church vows to help abuse victims

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 13 September 2010

As the Pope prepares to visit Britain this week, Belgium's Catholic Church has acknowledged widespread abuse in the church, but its head tells Channel 4 News that only the Vatican can remove the priest at the centre of the claims.

Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels and Primate of Belgium Andre-Joseph Leonard holds a news conference about abuse allegations in Belgium (Credit: Reuters)

In the wake of recent abuse scandals that have rocked the Church, Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard told a press conference the church is committed to setting up a victims' support centre and holding priests to account.

"The past months have been very difficult for the Church and for us. We are fully committed to tackling this problem in a new way," Archbishop Leonard said.

"We are going to invite the victims to go to the courts. It is for the courts to decide what penalties the priests should pay. A new commission should contact the perpetrators -and find out the truth."

On Friday, an official investigation highlighted decades of child abuse and cover-ups within the church.
350 priests are thought to be involved - with at least 13 of their victims committing suicide.

The scandal erupted in April when the Bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, resigned after admitting he had sexually abused his nephew.

But despite stepping down as Bishop, Vangheluwe remains a priest.

Archbishop Leonard told Foreign affairs correspondent Jonathan Rugman that only the Vatican has the power to remove Vangheluwe from the Church.

"It his not for him to decide whether to remain a priest, if the decision concerns a Bishop it is a matter for Rome. There is a procedure in place which also defends the rights of the defendant. It shouldn't be an emotional decision," he said.

Archbishop Leonard, who will visit Britain for the Pope's state visit this week, says he discussed the matter with the pontiff in May.

"He appreciated the way we've responded to it - in a strong way on this occasion. We discussed this for around 15 minutes. It was at the time they were raiding church premises in Belgium," he said.

Archbishop Leonard told Channel 4 News he hopes this new action will be a "chance to find a wider solution to this crisis".

"It's an opportunity to clean up the church. But because of the work that has been done by the church in setting up this commission - work which they will continue to do - it is also a new start for Belgian society.... This is a universal problem for the whole of society," he said.

But victim groups called the moves insufficient.

Abuse victim, San Deurinck, protested outside the news conference, holding photographs of himself as a child 

"I think it will be old wine in new bags. The bishops have found for many, many years several techniques to gain time and to postpone their final judgment," he said.

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