Conservative Belgian archbishop in eye of storm

Brussels, Belgium - He calls AIDS a form of "justice" for homosexuals and wants retired pedophile priests to go unpunished. He says women who have an abortion will be greeted in the afterlife by their unborn child crying "Momma!"

Archbishop Andre Leonard, 70, was plucked from a sleepy Belgian citadel-town by Pope Benedict XVI in January to energize the country's Roman Catholic faithful and reverse 30 years of liberalism. The appointment was in line with Benedict's policy of putting tradition-minded and conservative bishops in important dioceses.

But since taking office, Leonard's hardline views have added turmoil to a church already mired in an abuse scandal. And, privately, some Vatican officials are expressing concern about an ever-worsening public relations disaster.

The controversy turned into a very public revolt last week when his spokesman resigned, saying he could no longer morally defend Leonard.

"I was his GPS for three months. But it is the driver who has his hands on the wheel. Too often, I had to recalculate the route," said Juergen Mettepenningen. He called Leonard a "loose cannon who thinks everybody else is wrong."

Leonard's views - and the way he delivers them so stridently - are riling the Catholic base, but they dovetail with church teachings that homosexual acts are "intrinsically disordered" and that women who abort babies are sinners.

Also, the Vatican admits it has no tolerance for pedophiles, but rarely subjects elderly pedophile priests to full canonical trials, instead telling them to live out their years in prayer and penance.

Bert Claerhout, editor of Church and Life, a Catholic weekly, says he has been receiving "fierce" letters of complaint from readers - and doesn't believe Leonard's views have suddenly come to the attention of the Vatican.

"The pope knew very well what he did when he appointed Leonard. He wanted someone to bring a conservative view to the church here," Claerhout said in an interview.

Two of Belgium's 10 bishops have publicly challenged Leonard. Unusually, Belgian Premier Yves Leterme, a Catholic, also condemned him. Last week, a man ran up to the archbishop during a service at Brussels' main cathedral and shoved a cherry pie in his face.

Leonard last week published a five-page response to his critics, but refused to back off from his view that AIDS is punishment for a promiscuous lifestyle. Writing on his archdiocese's Web site, he drew parallels with people who continue to smoke despite seeing clear health warnings on cigarette packs.

Leonard took charge of the Belgian church just as a long-simmering sexual abuse scandal began to surface.

In April, the then-Bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, retired and admitted that for years he had abused a nephew. In June, police raided Leonard's offices looking for clues. There is no suggestion Leonard is involved in a coverup, but his subsequent defense of retired pedophile priests couldn't have come at a more sensitive time.

"If they are no longer priests, have no more (church) responsibilities, I doubt that taking some kind of vengeance ... is a humane solution," he said on Belgian public television in October.

"Do they really want a priest, aged 85, to be put in stocks and publicly humiliated? I think most victims don't want that."

Vatican insiders call Leonard a "very intellectual" theologian. He escaped the attention of most Belgian Catholics when, in the 1990s, he was the bishop of Namur - a city of 100,000 in the country's thinly populated south.

He holds a philosophy degree from the Leuven Catholic University and did theological studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, a Jesuit school. He was also a member of the International Theological Commission, which then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger - now Pope Benedict XVI - headed as prefect of the Vatican's orthodoxy office.

He took over from Cardinal Godfried Danneels who opposed key Vatican edicts such as a ban on condoms in AIDS prevention. During his tenure, Belgium legalized euthanasia and same-sex marriages - two red-flag issues in Rome - and Danneels didn't actively try to slow down the pace of change.

Vatican officials acknowledge concern about the Belgian situation, but have refrained from comment saying they don't want to inflame an already tense situation.

Gabriel Ringlet, a former deputy dean of the Universite Catholique de Louvain, wants Leonard to resign - a highly unlikely prospect and one that would be unprecedented in Belgium.

Rita Bettens, a churchgoing Catholic, also said Leonard was causing considerable damage. "And this is not a good time for any of that," she said, referring to continuing fallout from the abuse scandal.