Clergy Sex Abuse: Now Who Is Getting Hurt?

Clergy Sex Abuse: Now Who Is Getting Hurt?

Just when I think the clergy sex-abuse scandal in the Church couldn’t get any worse, news hit last week that Belgian Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of Brugge has no idea what he did was wrong when he abused his nephews ( It’s one thing to be in the clutches of compulsion, another to lose your moral compass so much that you don’t recognize something you did was wrong.    

This story was juxtaposed with one to the effect that 96 percent of U.S. dioceses and eparchies are in compliance for having filed their audits to fulfill the terms of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. But note that not all of these dioceses have complied to the extent of having all the background checks completed and training accomplished.  And it’s also apparent that transgressions in Philadelphia somehow fell through the cracks.    

Vangheluwe abused two of his nephews—one for years—and was forced to resign in April 2010 from pressure brought by the other Belgian bishops and the Vatican. In April of this year he revealed his mind-set in an interview with Belgian television. Unfortunately, the civil statute of limitations has run out on criminal prosecution.   

Cardinal Godfried Danneels, the retired archbishop of Mechelin-Brussels, had to testify before the Belgian parliament last December regarding Bishop Vangheluwe and other instances of clergy sex abuse in the Belgian Church.

This wouldn’t be so bad except that the bishop still has no idea that what he did was wrong. It had started “as a game,” he said. He does not consider himself a pedophile: “I did not have the feeling my nephew was against it, quite the contrary.” Luckily, the other Belgian bishops forced his resignation and commented that what he did “is extremely offensive for the victims, their families and for everyone who must confront the problem of sexual abuse. Even for the faithful it’s a slap in the face.” The Vatican is investigating the whole situation.   

Some Still Don’t Get It

Unfortunately, there still seem to be some people who don’t recognize that consent must be a part of sex—or else it’s rape—and that a person must have full knowledge and freedom (read that, be “adult”) to be able to consent. (Note that these three conditions must also be met for a sin to be mortal.) Children are easy to exploit because they have no idea of the ramifications of what they are doing.   

This Belgian bishop doesn’t seem to be aware that children and adolescents (and also mentally challenged adults) are different and deserve protection.   

Children need to be able to trust that adults, especially uncles and those representing the Church, are operating in their best interests. St. Paul says that when he was a child, he spoke like a child, thought like a child and reasoned like a child. But when he grew up, he became an adult and put away childish things (1 Corinthians 13:11). Even before modern psychologists discovered that moral discernment grows just as a child’s body does, St. Paul knew there was a real line between children and adults.   

The Wrong People Are Paying for the Crimes

The other thing that really depresses me about this crisis is the number of dioceses going bankrupt trying to pay the legal settlements from all the court cases. First, it’s astonishing how widespread abuse of adolescents and children was, and how extensive the pattern of the cover-ups by bishops.   

I was shocked anew at last month’s PBS’s Frontline segment (“The Silence“) on the abuse in northern Alaska of Inuit children, and saw the real pain in the faces of those abused. Pain was also on Fairbanks Bishop Donald Kettler’s face when he tried to apologize for what had happened. Kettler was not the bishop at the time of the abuse, but admits it took five years for him to believe the reports. Why are lay people never believed in the Church?    

Bishops who were responsible for returning pedophile priests and deacons to parish work say they were advised by psychologists to send the offenders into counseling programs and then right back into the same situations where they would have to deal with children and adolescents on a regular basis. The bishops say they were just following the advice of “experts.” But wouldn’t it have occurred to them after the second time that this wasn’t working? Where was their common sense?   

Second, I’m appalled that people I know who work for dioceses are losing their jobs because of the settlements. Sure, Catholics will continue to get bread and wine at Mass, but many will not get the proper social services or faith formation (due to lack of educational resources) or information (due to closure of diocesan newspapers and communications offices). Social justice and right-to-life efforts, etc., will be shortchanged.  

The wrong people are paying for the crime; they are as much innocent victims as the abused. Many of them have devoted themselves to Church work their entire lives. They should not have to be out of jobs and scrambling to provide for their next meal and retirement.   

It’s reached a point where I think someone should stand up and concede that throwing money at a problem is not the best way to deal with it. It’s not punishing the right people.   

Featured Photo: Former Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of Brugge, Belgium, 74, was interviewed for Belgian television channel VT4  in April. He was forced to retire after admitting to years of sexual abuse of his nephew and molesting another nephew. He tried to excuse it by saying that it had all started “as a game.”   

Photo Credit: CNS photo/VT4 via Reuters (April 15, 2011)   

Danneels Photo Credit: CNS photo/Francois Lenoir, Reuters  (Dec. 21, 2010)


About the Author

Barbara Beckwith is the managing editor of "St. Anthony Messenger" magazine. A graduate of Marquette University’s College of Journalism, she is a former president of the Catholic Press Association of the United States and former vice president of the International Catholic Union of the Press.
  • Connie

    Thank you for this blog entry. Finally someone said something about how the pain goes on, like pond ripples from a thrown stone—and lives completely innocent of any wrongdoing are being affected by it. Here’s another example, that happened only three weeks ago: My niece said to me that her son, who is eight, would like to serve Mass. But she is reluctant to allow him to participate, because as she put it, “I don’t know if I trust that he will be safe.” That she should have to think like this about people in spiritual authority over her family, hurts my heart and infuriates me. That he might not have the experience of serving in this way, makes me very sad. Who knows how this might impact his life and future? All I can think to do is pray: Lord, continue to draw Your people close; allow them to know that You are still trustworthy; and lead them to walk with You no matter the circumstances, in Jesus’ name.

  • Unapoligetic Catholic

    I recently apologized to my sons who were altar boys. I apologized to them for the risk to which they had been exposed. I would object to grandchildren serving as altar servers. I do not trust any bishop and extremely few priests. It is best that I just not participate.

    • Mumcdavid

      sad. again there are so many  good and faithful servants who bear the shame of a few.
      Jesus said, Little children, do not be afraid, It is the father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdon” 

  • david clohessy

    Let’s be honest: the overwhelming majority of clergy sex abuse victims can’t and don’t sue. The overwhelming majority of settlements are covered by insurance policies (bought with the donations of our parents and grandparents).

    I’m curious, Ms. Beckwith, what suggestions you may have re making “the right people” pay.

    David Clohessy
    Executive Director, SNAP
    Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
    7234 Arsenal Street
    St. Louis MO 63143
    314 566 9790

  • William Seuffert

    It is so sad but as an example this shows how sin affects the whole of Christ’s mystical body. We are truly one and when one hurts we all hurt. Let us pray for all those who hurt and please pray for priest they really need our prayers!

  • Mckendzia

    Powerful words, Barbara. I am especially on board with you regarding the fact that money is not going to solve this problem, for either the victims or for the Church itself.

  • Miriamvs

    Parents are being punished, too. Moms who volunteer to hand out ice cream at Catholic schools or run the Duck Pond at the Parish carnival are being forced to undergo background checks and fingerprinting — thus assumed guily and having to prove they are innocent. NEWSFLASH Catholic Church — it was NOT Moms (or Dads for that matter) that were molesting children, it was Clergy and even worse, bishops who knew about it and let it continue. Now scant parish resources are going to fingerprinting and checking out lay people rather than to feed the hungry or shelter the homeless.


  • Gary H

    Barbara, great article-

    • Barbara Beckwith

      Thanks. I love it when people agree with me.