A Belgian Church official has told a parliamentary committee that the Vatican’s failure to laicize a bishop who admitted to abuse threatens to overshadow Pope Francis’ scheduled visit to the country.
Speaking at a Jan. 26 hearing of the Flemish Parliament’s committee investigating clerical abuse, Bruno Spriet addressed the case of Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, who resigned as Bishop of Bruges in 2010 after admitting to sexually abusing a nephew.
Spriet, the general secretary of the Belgian bishops’ conference, said: “As we have communicated, his ecclesiastical file is in Rome. After all, according to canon law, only the Holy See can remove someone from the priesthood or episcopate.”
“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. 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.
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, who died in 2019, 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 retains the title of bishop and remains 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.
Bonny has previously expressed frustration at the Vatican’s handling of the Vangheluwe case.
In September 2023, he said that Belgium’s bishops had been “asking for years for a reaction” from the Vatican.
In comments reported on the Belgian broadcaster VRT’s website, he said: “I want to honestly say that our conference of bishops has been asking Rome to do this for years — through the nuncio and directly in Rome.”
“Last year in November  during the visit of the bishops to Rome, we put it up for discussion again, and after the umpteenth time, Rome’s reaction is no different.”
Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said Jan. 22 that he had discussed Vangheluwe in a meeting with Archbishop Franco Coppola, the apostolic nuncio to Belgium.
“I have once again urged that the Vatican remove Bishop Roger Vangheluwe’s title,” he said in a post on twitter.com. “That is important for the victims.”
According to Belgian media, De Croo previously raised the case with Coppola in October 2023, following the airing of “Godvergeten.”
The Flemish Parliament committee’s next hearing is due to be held Feb. 2.
Editor’s note: This report was updated Jan. 31 with Belgium’s prime minister Alexander De Croo’s remarks about the Vangheluwe case..