Belgian bishops nix US sex norms but vow action

Rome, Italy - Tough U.S. norms about dealing with clerical sex abuse that have been hailed as a model by the Vatican aren't appropriate for Belgium, even as it deals with dozens of new reports of priests molesting children, a leading archbishop said Friday.

Brussels Archbishop Andre-Mutien Leonard said the context in which the U.S. norms were created - amid a major scandal in 2002 - required a much tougher response than what Belgium or Europe requires. But he said the Belgian church nevertheless was taking a firm stance against pedophile priests, albeit a more measured one than in the U.S.

"In Belgium, we are truly determined to be firm, transparent and rigorous on this question, but perhaps the European context, the Belgian context is not the same as the American context," he said. "In Belgium, we always like to speak in a language that can be very firm but one might say 'velvety' - a bit soft. But firm."

Leonard spoke to reporters Friday after a week of previously scheduled meetings with Vatican officials that followed the April announcement that the country's longest-serving bishop, Roger Vangheluwe, had resigned after admitting he sexually abused a boy.

The revelation has shaken the Belgian church, sparking what Leonard has said was a "crisis in confidence" in an institution that has already seen a sharp decline in the number of priests in recent years.

The pope addresses the Belgian clergymen Saturday.

Cardinal Joseph Levada, the American who heads the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is in charge of clerical abuse cases, has said the U.S. norms could be a model for bishops around the world - as well as for Boy Scouts, public schools and other institutions catering to children.

"I do think that the United States can rightly offer a model and I will look forward to helping my brother bishops around the world see what can be done if you take good concrete steps," to screen and educate priests and establish safe environment programs for children, Levada told U.S. public broadcaster PBS last month.

The U.S. norms, which the Vatican accepted as church law in the U.S., bar credibly accused priests from any public church work while claims against them are under investigation. Diocesan review boards, comprised mostly of lay people, help bishops oversee cases. Clergy found guilty are permanently barred from public ministry and, in some cases, ousted from the priesthood.

The U.S. policy does not specifically order all bishops to notify civil authorities when claims are made. Instead it instructs bishops to comply with state laws for reporting abuse, and to cooperate with authorities. All dioceses were also instructed to advise victims of their right to contact authorities themselves.

The Belgian church in 2000 created an independent panel of experts to look into abuse complaints, but it quickly clashed with the church leadership. The panel has accused the church of tardiness in compensating victims.

Leonard recently posted an appeal on the website of the Belgian church's news agency urging victims and the abusive priests themselves to report abuse to civil authorities, or to the panel of experts at the very least if the statute of limitations has expired.

He didn't mention the duty of bishops to report abuse. Recently the Vatican posted a policy on its website saying bishops should report abuse to law enforcement where civil laws require it.

Hasselt Bishop Patrick Hoogmortens said Friday that clergymen aren't required by law to report such abuse in Belgium. But he said they do so when there is an "urgent" need to remove an abusive priest.

He said that since the sex scandal erupted in Europe nearly two months ago, Belgium's panel had received reports from more than 150 alleged victims.