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Belgian bishop laicized 14 years after admitting abuse

Pope Francis has laicized Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, almost 14 years after the Belgian prelate resigned after admitting that he had abused a nephew.

Roger Vangheluwe, the Bishop of Bruges, Belgium, from 1985 to 2010. Carolus via Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0).

The apostolic nunciature to Belgium said in a March 21 statement that “serious new elements” had emerged in recent months, prompting the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith to reopen the case of the former Bishop of Bruges, who stepped down in 2010.


The dicastery, which handles abuse cases, presented a file to Pope Francis March 8, recommending Vangheluwe’s dismissal from the clerical state. 

The nunciature said that the recommendation was made “in accordance with Article 26 of the norms Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela, on crimes reserved to the competence of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.”

During a March 11 meeting with the Vatican’s doctrine chief Víctor Manuel Fernández, Pope Francis “granted the request, ordering that the proposed sentence be imposed.” 

Vangheluwe was informed of the pope’s decision March 20. The nunciature said that the 87-year-old “asked to be allowed to reside in a place of retreat, without any further contact with the outside world, to dedicate himself to prayer and penance.”

“The Holy Father reiterates his closeness to the victims of abuse and his commitment to eradicating this scourge from the Church,” the nunciature said.

The Vangheluwe case has bedeviled the Belgian Church for more than a decade and threatened to overshadow a papal visit to Belgium reportedly scheduled for September.

In January, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo urged the Vatican to remove Vangheluwe’s title.

In the same month, a Belgian Church official told a parliamentary committee that the Vatican’s failure to laicize Vangheluwe could disrupt the visit.

Speaking at a Jan. 26 hearing of the Flemish Parliament’s committee investigating clerical abuse, bishops’ conference general secretary Bruno Spriet said that “in recent years, the Belgian bishops have written several times to the Holy See (in 2017 and 2019) to speak out more clearly about ecclesiastical sanctions against Roger Vangheluwe.” 

“In their joint letter to Pope Francis in October 2023, they reiterated their demand for Roger Vangheluwe’s removal from ordained ministry. His record continues to weigh on us and on all of society.” 

Spriet added: “We know that those responsible in Rome are aware of the magnitude of the scandal and are working for a solution. It will be difficult for Pope Francis to make a peaceful visit to our country in September until there is clarity on this matter.” 

“Moreover, we have insisted from the outset that during that visit the necessary time and space be provided for a personal meeting between Pope Francis and victims who wish to speak to him. We cannot imagine a papal visit without such a meeting.”

Pope Francis announced in a December 2023 interview that he intended to visit Belgium in 2024. The Vatican has not officially confirmed the trip.

Spriet was joined at the committee meeting in Brussels by Archbishop Luc Terlinden, who has led the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels since June 2023, and Antwerp’s Bishop Johan Bonny, the Belgian bishops’ point man on clerical abuse.

The three men outlined the Belgian Church’s response to the clerical abuse crisis that exploded following Vangheluwe’s resignation on April 23, 2010. 

After the bishop stepped down, an independent report recorded 475 abuse complaints against clergy and Church workers from the 1950s to the 1980s. 

The police launched surprise raids on Church properties, straining relations between Belgian authorities and the Vatican.

Vangheluwe later admitted to abusing a second nephew, but said that he did not regard himself a pedophile. He made the remarks in a 2011 interview with the Flemish channel VT4, sparking outrage with what viewers perceived to be his lack of contrition. 

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After his resignation, Vangheluwe moved to a Catholic community in France, but was not prosecuted because the statute of limitations had expired by the time his actions came to light.

The Vangheluwe scandal also tarnished the reputation of Cardinal Godfried Danneels, the then Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, after an audio recording was leaked in which the cardinal urged one of the nephews not to publicly accuse his uncle. 

Pope Francis controversially included Danneels in a list of personal invitees to the 2015 family synod.

The Flemish Parliament, the legislative body for Belgium’s Flanders region, voted in October 2023 to set up a special committee of inquiry into sexual abuse in the Church, after the four-part documentary series “Godvergeten” (Godforsaken) was aired by the Belgian television channel VRT Canvas.

The series, which highlighted clerical abuse and cover-ups in Belgium, reportedly prompted a surge in Catholics leaving the Church.

The series rekindled debate about the Vangheluwe case and why the 87-year-old retained the title of bishop and remained a priest. 

According to Belgian Catholic media, two bishops visited Vangheluwe at the end of September 2023 at the monastery where he is obliged to live in anonymity. They asked him to present his resignation as a bishop to Pope Francis. 

Vangheluwe reportedly later told one of the visitors, Bishop Bonny, that he had written to the pope. The contents of the letter have not been made public.

In a March 21 statement, Belgium’s bishops said that they had “always believed, along with the victims of abuse and many others in our society, that it was shameful that Roger Vangheluwe was able to remain officially bishop and priest, despite the very restrictive measures put in place since his forced resignation.”

“The bishops again called for laicization in October 2023. They urged Vangheluwe to apply for it himself and reintroduced his canonical dossier to the Vatican authorities. This dossier includes the statement of a victim who recently testified formally against Vangheluwe.”

The statement added: “The bishops express their great respect for the victims. They found the courage and strength to denounce their aggressor. Their example has inspired many other victims who, in turn, will no longer let their aggressor go unpunished. The bishops hope that this laicization will help victims to recover from the abuse that so deeply affects them and their loved ones for life.”

“Roger Vangheluwe’s laicization means that he can now, in principle, go wherever he wants. However, it has been agreed with the abbey where he currently resides that he can continue to stay there in seclusion. The bishops have insisted that he do so.”

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