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Predatory Priests, Church Cover-Ups and the Belgian Abberation

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By Barbara Blaine and Rita Nakashima Brock

The clergy sex abuse and cover-up crisis continue not only across Europe but also across the globe. Nowhere, however, has the recent crisis been more acute than in Belgium. Over the span of just a few weeks, the New York Times reported on Tuesday, July 13, a bishop has resigned, police have conducted an unusual raid on three church facilities to collect evidence, and hundreds of men and women have stepped forward reporting the horrors they say they experienced as children at the hands of Belgian clerics.

A painfully familiar, almost formulaic pattern of criminal behavior has emerged in the many stories of sexual abuse by priests this past year. It's the same appalling pattern Americans have seen in case after case in the U.S. And it suggests that, whether through quiet Vatican fiat or a stunningly homogenous and twisted clerical culture, Catholic officials over decades and across national boundaries have engaged in the same destructive (and self destructive) behaviors when it comes to predator priests.

The elements of the pattern were replayed in the recent Belgium case. The pattern constitutes a perverse ten-step church approach to avoid facing the truth, protecting the children, and fixing a sick system:

1) Victims patiently and doggedly struggle to find even one person in the Catholic hierarchy who will listen to their experiences and work to protect others. The victim of the recently resigned Bruge Bishop Roger Vangheluwe spent nearly 25 years trying to get action from numerous Belgian church officials.

2) Reluctant church officials act only when a persistent victim, witness or whistleblower threatens to expose the abuse. A friend of the victim of Vangheluwe laid a paper trail by contacting each of Belgium's nine bishops in writing.

3) A church insider quietly but bravely alerts his superiors about the abuse report, yet ends up being criticized, instead of rewarded, for his courage and compassion. In the Vangheluwe case, this insider was a now-retired priest, Fr. Rik Devillé, who was berated for his efforts.

4) The predator steps aside or is suspended, but little or nothing else is done to protect others from him. Vangheluwe, according to the Times, now spends his time at a Belgian abbey, dodging reporters, but under few restrictions and little competent supervision. Because of such lax measures, U.S. victims are increasingly prodding bishops to assure that predator priests live in remote, secure, and professionally run treatment centers so they can get help and so that children can be safe.

5) Knowing that an admitted child molester has had access to hundreds of children over decades, the Catholic hierarchy does the absolute bare minimum -- like letting him resign -- to cover it up, rather than doing the socially responsible and morally right thing. The church contends that Bishop Vangheluwe cannot face prosecution because the case is too old for the statue of limitations. The truth, however, is that if they wanted to, church officials could use their vast resources and persuasive powers to encourage newer victims still within the statute of limitations to report the crimes against them and enable criminal prosecution of clergy predators.

6) After the accused pedophile is ousted, church officials exert little or no effort to seek out and help other victims. Top Belgian church staff, knowing that there are more victims, have not visited every church in Vangheluwe's diocese, to encourage others who saw, suspected or suffered his crimes to step forward, get help, call police and start healing.

7) Inspired by the courage of one survivor and frustrated by the continuing secrecy, callousness, and recklessness of top church staff, many victims of the same priest come forward. The church contends that Bishop Vangheluwe cannot face prosecution because the one reported case -- his own nephew -- is too old, but 500 of his victims have and are speaking up.

8) Catholic officials express more concern for church power, decorum, and authority, and their internal procedures than for children's safety or the rule of law. Belgian bishops acted outraged that police put small probes inside two tombs and confiscated private computers, looking for hidden documents.

9) Even after they have documented evidence that a priest is a predator, church officials go to extraordinary efforts to keep him practicing as a priest, sometimes moving him across international borders and placing him in another country where he continues his crimes. In the Belgium case, this has yet to be discovered, but the pattern is common enough, it might have also happened there with other priests.

10) Once abuse goes public and it is obvious that a priest has broken the law, the church hides behind the mystique and mystifications of religious authority to prevent legal measures against the priest and those who concealed his crimes. And secular officials often exhibit excessive deference and extreme timidity in the face of church authorities, paying simple lip service to victims of crimes they are charged to protect.

Though the pattern fits, the Belgian case is different in one crucial way. Belgian law enforcement authorities showed that they cared more about vulnerable kids and wounded adults than protecting ecclesial authorities. They have aggressively sought evidence against Bishop Vangheluwe and others in the church hierarchy.

As far as we know, in only one other instance did law enforcement officials act responsibly in ignoring the mantle of religion as a bogus claim of legal immunity. In Toledo, Ohio, church headquarters were raided in 2004 for documents that later helped convict a priest who had brutally stabbed and murdered a nun.

So what does this pattern tell us? First, it bolsters claims by several U.S. victims who are suing the Vatican. The victims argue that a cover-up this long, extensive, and uniformly-implemented must have been directed at the top.

Second, it reminds us that the best source of pressure for reform are victims themselves. While the sexual abuse of even one child by a priest should warrant a public outcry, criminal prosecution, and church sanctions, the sheer shocking scale of the numbers of lives seems to be required to prompt investigations, prosecutions and penalties. In Belgium, 500 victims of one priest have now come forward. Every effort should be made to encourage all victims to come forward.

If kids are truly to be safer, a clear solution has emerged: the direct, forceful involvement of independent professionals in law enforcement who investigate not just individual predators but the full church bureaucracy. History, psychology and common sense all strongly suggest that the official church bureaucracy played, and still plays, an enormous role in hiding child-molesting clerics.

If children are to be protected, the actions of Belgian law enforcement must become the norm, not the aberration.

Barbara Blaine of Chicago is the founder and president of SNAP, the Survivors network of those Abused by Priests (SNAPnetwork.org).