Belgian church seeks way out of abuse crisis

Brussels, Belgium - The Belgian Roman Catholic church on Monday acknowledged widespread sexual abuse over years by its clergy and pleaded for time to set up a system to punish all abusers and provide closure for victims.

The comments were in response to a report Friday in which hundreds of sex abuse victims revealed harrowing accounts of molestation by Catholic clergy throughout the country over the past 50 years.

At a news conference Monday, Belgium's Archbishop Andre-Mutien Leonard said "a feeling of anger and powerlessness" had taken hold of the church.

"The report and the suffering it contains make us shiver," he told reporters. He said the crisis gripping the church is so deep it would be impossible to find an easy way out.

"We want to draw the necessary lessons from the mistakes of the past," Leonard said, adding it would have to involve "a long process of truth."

The report, by an independent panel with links to the church, highlighted claims by surviving family members that at least 13 victims committed suicide as a result of the abuse by clergy. Hundreds more victims complained about trauma that plagued them, sometimes up to 50 years after the abuse.

The report stressed that the abuse went well beyond touching and often centered on oral and anal abuse, forced masturbation and mutual masturbation. It said there was abuse in each sector of the church, especially at Catholic boarding schools, and throughout the nation. Most of the abuse happened during the 1960s and 1970s.

"It was impressive, perplexing but also very positive. It was exactly what we wanted - transparency and that truth come to light," Leonard told VRT television later.

Leonard said the Belgian church was struggling with how to respond.

"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)," Leonard said of hotly anticipated church plans to go after the abusers and protect the victims. The church also called on all abusers to come forward.

"We want to and have to come clean with the past," said Antwerp bishop Johan Bonny, who is also involved in the follow-up of the report. "We have had the courage to let the commission do its work and publish its conclusions. A major step has been taken, however painful it is."

The panel's report was the latest embarrassment for Belgium's Church, which is still reeling after the April resignation of Bruges Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, who admitted to having sexually abused a nephew for years when he was a priest and bishop decades ago.

Victims and a leading senator have already called religious authorities to punish him for the abuse.

On Monday, Leonard said it was up to the Vatican to decide on any punishment.

"It is not up to Monsignor Vangheluwe himself. The nuncio has assured us that a decision in Rome will be taken with a reasonable time limit," he said.