BRUSSELS — The former leader of the Catholic Church in Belgium on Tuesday called for more openness and humility within the church to make sure that child abuse scandals by priests did not happen again.
Belgium's Catholic church was rocked by scandal this spring when a bishop was forced to resign after years of abuse of his nephew. Since then, over 500 witnesses have come forward with harrowing accounts of molestation by Catholic clergy that span decades. The abused included children aged between the ages of two and six years old. The abuse reportedly led to at least 13 suicides.
Retired Cardinal Godfried Danneels told a parliamentary inquiry panel into child molestation by priests on Tuesday that abuse of power often left the church aloof to abuse problems and the needs of the victims.
Danneels called on the church "to look its dark side in the eyes" and step away from an arrogant age when "class mentality" made sure it "often thought too much and foremost about itself and its priests and not the victims."
He acknowledged that a taboo on sexuality in church circles "can also lead to hypocrisy," which can only be countered by openness and transparency. Danneels said the time was now over when abusive priests were "untouchable (and) they could enforce silence."
It was at one time "impossible for an abused child to say at home that a priest was the culprit. There was a compulsion of conscience among parents to protect the priest," he added.
"The time has gone that children would be given an additional smack by parents when they said something wrong about someone with authority — because a priest, or a teacher, was always right."
Danneels' comments are the first time a church leader of his stature has spoken so openly and frankly about the excess and misuse of church power and authority in this overwhelmingly Catholic nation.
Earlier this year, Danneels acknowledged that instead of asking the bishop guilty of sexual abuse of a nephew to resign, he had suggested instead that the nephew agree to a cover-up until the offending bishop retired. The conversation with the victim was taped and published by Belgian media.
The church has pleaded for time to set up a system to punish all abusers and provide closure for victims.