Pervasive Abuse Found in Belgian Church

Sexual abuse of children reached all parts of Belgium’s Roman Catholic Church, and it drove at least 13 victims to kill themselves, a report released Friday said.  Peter Adriaenssens, a psychiatrist, presented a report on Friday about sexual abuse in Belgium’s Roman Catholic Church.

The report, put forth by a commission established by the church itself, sketched the harrowing dimensions of priestly abuse over five decades, listing cases involving 327 male complainants and 161 women, and 19 cases in which the gender of the victim was unclear. In one case the abuse began when a child was just 2 years old.

The report was the latest blow to a church reeling from a sexual scandal that worsened after the bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, resigned in April after admitting that he had abused a boy who was later identified as his nephew. The resignation prompted more than 200 victims to come forward within a few days with complaints about abuses by priests, in some cases dating back many decades. One complainant is more than 90 years old.

Those victims’ stories, compiled in the report, reveal in detail their suffering. Many say they are still fighting illness and depression many years after the abuses.

“I had massive depressions, including one which took me to attempted suicide,” wrote one victim. Another wrote, “My life has been essentially nothing but running away, surrender, solitude, sickness, humiliation, tears, silence, mistrust and REGRETS.”

The report amounts to the final act of the commission, led by Peter Adriaenssens, a prominent psychiatrist. The commission decided to stop its work after the Belgian police confiscated its documents in a series of high-profile raids on church property in June in search of proof of sexual abuse or of a cover-up by the church.

At the same time, the police searched the headquarters of the Catholic Church in Mechelen, disturbing the tomb of a cardinal in an unsuccessful hunt for documents, and prompting criticism from Pope Benedict XVI.

Seizures made by the police were ruled inadmissible this week by the country’s Court of Appeal. Belgian law prevents the police from investigating complaints about events that happened more than 10 years ago, and the commission was set up to try to deal with cases that are too old for legal action.

Dr. Adriaenssens said the number of cases multiplied after several abusers were interviewed for the report.

“We saw how priests, called up by the commission and asked to help seek the truth, were willing to set up the list of 10, 15, 20 victims they abused during boarding school while the commission knew only of one,” he said, according to the BBC.

Jurgen Mettepenningen, spokesman for the Belgian church, declined to comment on the report. On Monday the church will announce a new process for dealing with abuse cases, he said.

While the legal investigation goes on, Friday’s report underlined the human cost of abuse.

It showed that the most abuse occurred between the 1950s and the late 1980s, a period when priests, some of them teachers, had greater access to children and enjoyed great respect and trust among parents in Belgium, where Catholicism is the majority religion.

Though some of the statements by victims tell of the abuse in detail, names and places have been deleted to preserve the anonymity of the victims and those suspected of abuse.

The testimony illustrates the way victims struggled for years to try to come to terms with the abuse, sometimes with results that devastated families. Many complain of illness or mental health problems.

Friends or relatives reported that the suicides of 13 victims “were related to sexual abuse by clergy,” the report said. Six other victims said they had attempted suicide. And one victim mentioned the suicide of a partner because of the impact of abuse and the way it affected their relationship.

Some also paint a picture of a church hierarchy determined to ignore any damaging allegations. One 17-year-old said she complained to a bishop about an abusive relationship with a priest and said she was told, “Ignore him and he’ll leave you alone.”

In some cases, the abuse started when victims were very young. One victim was 2 years old, five were 4 years old, eight were 5, seven were 6, and 10 were 7.

“Males are at a markedly higher risk between 10 and 14 years,” the report says, while the risk for women is more uniform through their childhood and adolescence and tends to increase with age.

Dr. Adriaenssens described the report as the church’s “Dutroux dossier,” a reference to Marc Dutroux, Belgium’s notorious pedophile and child killer, who is serving a life sentence in prison.

“Of course, the facts revealed are old,” said Dr. Adriaenssens, according to the Belgian newspaper Le Soir. “Society has evolved, parents now are more sensitive to the rights of children, but nothing indicates that the proportion of pedophiles has declined.”

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