Belgian parliament backs report on church abuse

Brussels, Belgium - Belgium's parliament on Wednesday called for an independent arbitration committee to deal with years of child abuse by Roman Catholic clergy and possible compensation for victims.

A special parliamentary committee unanimously approved a report, which also urges to extend the time for victims to come forward with their complaints to 15 years after adulthood instead of 10.

Last year, the church acknowledged widespread sexual abuse over half a century and pleaded for time to set up a system to punish all abusers and provide closure for victims.

After weeks of witness and expert testimony, the committee's report will be taken up by the full parliament next week. It is expected to receive the same widespread support as in the committee.

"We say two things to the church. You must recognize your moral responsibility toward these victims," said Karine Lalieux, chairwoman of the committee. "And if these victims demand recompense, an official recognition, we offer a process of arbitration to empower all the victims."

She said it would offer the church a way out of a spiral of relentless criticism that, even beyond the abuse, it remained cold, unhelpful and calculating in its stand toward hundreds of victims.

"The church will grow in stature if it takes part in these recommendations and agrees to this arbitration tribunal," Lalieux said.

Last year, an independent panel highlighted hundreds of accounts of molestation by Catholic clergy throughout the country over the past 50 years. It also highlighted claims by surviving family members that at least 13 victims committed suicide as a result of the abuse. Hundreds more victims complained about trauma that plagued them decades after the molestation.

The report said there was abuse in each sector of the church, especially at Catholic boarding schools, and throughout the nation. Its findings were at the basis of the parliamentary committee.

In a reaction, Roman Catholic church spokesman Toon Osaer told VRT network that "the bishops are willing to look for reasonable solutions to meet the requests of the victims."

He said it would be complicated to decide how the church could compensate victims because of the complicated structure of religious institutions.

A victims' group welcomed the conclusions of the committee.

"This report is a first step. It doesn't go all the way be we will try and help to make sure it is followed up and the situation for survivors is improved," Lieve Halsberghe, campaigner for the pressure group SNAP, said.

The church, once one of the most powerful institutions in Belgium, has been reeling since last April, when Bruges Bishop Roger Vangheluwe resigned after admitting to having sexually abused a nephew for years when he was a priest and bishop decades ago.