Belgian Archbishop sparks controversy with AIDS remark

Brussels, Belgium - The head of the Roman Catholic church in Belgium was forced on the retreat Friday, after his remarks about the causes of the AIDS virus sparked controversy.

In a book of interviews due to be published over the weekend, Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard is quoted as saying that "the AIDS epidemic is a form of immanent justice," according to extracts published by Belgian media.

The remark referred to Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget's concept that if a rule is broken, punishment will be meted out immediately.

A complaint about the comment was filed before Belgium's equal opportunities and anti-racism committee, which had previously acquitted Leonard for comparing homosexuality to anorexia.

It also sparked an outcry among Belgian politicians.

The prelate tried to deflect some of the flak in a press conference later Friday, in which he stressed that the book, now being published in the Dutch language, had already been printed in French in 2006, and so the comments were not new.

"If someone smokes a lot, cancer is a form of immanent justice. There are consequences linked to our behaviour," the Archbishop insisted, according to the Belga news agency.

However, he maintained that he was out to condemn "practices" and not individual persons, and stressed that HIV-infected people "deserve respect and should not suffer any discrimination."

The Belgian Catholic Church has lost standing recently, following revelations in September that over 500 people told an internal church committee that they had been victimised by paedophile priests, with one complainant being just two-years-old when the abuse started.