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Catholic bishop hides as abuse crisis unfolds

By Jonathan Rugman

Updated on 12 September 2010

As the Pope prepares to come to Britain, the Catholic church is engulfed by a new crisis. Jonathan Rugman has distressing details of an inquiry into child abuse by priests in Belgium, that has produced some of the most damning evidence yet.

Pope Benedict XVI is due to visit the UK this week as the Catholic church faces its latest crisis (Image: Getty)

Former bishop Roger Vangheluwe - the most senior Catholic clergyman in Europe to be directly linked with the allegations - has gone into hiding after admitting he abused a young nephew for 13 years.

Now aged 73, His Excellency was Belgium's longest serving Bishop, until he was forced to admit in April that he had been abusing his own nephew and offered the Pope his resignation.

Bishop Roger immediately went into hiding at the Abbey of Saint Sixtus in Flanders, but now it seems even the good Trappists of Saint Sixtus have had enough.

In the early hours of yesterday morning, the former Bishop left here for an undisclosed location.

In a written statement he admitted his guilt and said he was sorry for what he had done.

But the Catholic church has not defrocked him for abusing his 5 year old nephew - and he can not be tried under Belgian law because the crime was committed more than 10 years ago. Since he resigned, he has plunged the church into the worst child abuse scandal across Europe.

Pope Benedict XVI's four-day visit next week will be the first papal visit to the UK since 1982.

Bishop Roger presided in the medieval city of Bruges, in a cathedral dating back over 800 years. Church attendance is already below 10 percent in Belgium but the Bishop bizarrely may have done his dwindling flock a favour.
That is the view of Belgium's leading child psychiatrist, Professor Peter Adriaenssens, who on Friday announced that he had finished an official investigation into decades of child abuse within the church.

His findings shocked Belgium - 350 priests are thought to be involved - with at least 13 of their victims committing suicide. But only 20 victims dared come forward before the Bishop resigned.

The findings that shocked Belgium:
- 327 men and 161 women have informed the enquiry - set up at the beginning of the year - that they were abused as children. Most of them came forward in a 6 week period following the Bishop of Bruges' resignation.
- 215 of them came forward in the very first week after the Bishop resigned in April.
- The youngest victim was just 2 years old at the time. 
- 24 victims were 7 years or younger
- 50 per cent of the perpetrators are dead
- At least 13 victims are believed to have committed suicide
- 80 per cent of the abuse reported occurred in the 1950s, 60s, 70s.
- The head of the enquiry said no area of Belgium had escaped the abusers and he called the scandal a "body blow" to the church.
- Nearly 450 perpetrators, with 350 thought to be priests and according to Adriaenssens "none" have gone to jail
- In one case, 5 men accused a priest in the 1990s, but the abuser was given 18 months' probation

Source: Prof Adriaenssens' enquiry, released on Friday.

San Deurinck is one of those who came forward. He is 65 and is living in Antwerp. And only now does he feel brave enough talk about the years of abuse at a Catholic boarding school beginning when he was just 11.

San was too scared to say no. Those who did were thrashed. And the little boy has turned into a man scarred for life.

The head of Belgium's church was himself in tears on the day his offending Bishop was forced to resign, and faith in the institution now seems at a very low ebb.

Catholic crisis: Child abuse victim San Deurinck speaks out
In an interview in Antwerp on Saturday, 65 year old San Deurinck, a retired shopkeeper, described what he had endured as a child at a Catholic boarding school in the 1950s and 1960s.

San only started talking about his abuse this year, and I salute his extraordinary bravery in sharing his experience, writes to Foreign Affairs correspondent Jonathan Rugman. Read the transciption here.

In June, the police even took a Cardinal away for questioning and confiscated his computer, fearing an official cover up over the extent of abuse. Though a few days ago a court ordered that everything taken away should be released.

But though the church has apologised and backed the first proper enquiry into the scandal, the head of the enquiry says he has heard nothing from the Vatican itself.

Today the Pope himself asked the faithful outside his summer residence to pray for his visit to Britain where he will be the Queen's guest. In this his very own "annus horribilis", as the child abuse scandal has spread worldwide.

Jonathan Rugman will report on the Belgian Catholic Church's formal response to the scandal on Monday evening. 

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