Brussels: A former Belgian bishop at the centre of one of the Roman Catholic church's biggest paedophile scandals said on Thursday that he had abused two nephews and insisted he had no plans to abandon the priesthood.
In his first television interview since the scandal broke a year ago, Roger Vangheluwe claimed he paid one nephew he abused for years tens of thousands of euros in support, but denied it was meant to keep him silent.
He called 13 years of sexual abuse of one nephew which started at age 5 as no more than "a little piece of intimacy”. He said the abuse of a second nephew was very short.
He said he fully realised what he did was wrong, and often went to confession about it. The 74-year-old Vangheluwe resigned a year ago, just as the sex abuse scandal was spreading across Europe.
The acknowledgment of more abuse and his attempts to minimise its impact immediately caused an outcry. Vangheluwe said the 13-year abuse of his nephew "started as, I would call it, a game. And in fact it never went much beyond that”, he told VT4 network.
"I had the strong impression that my nephew didn't mind at all. To the contrary," he said. "It was not brutal sex," Vangheluwe said. "I never used bodily, physical violence."
Walter Van Steenbrugge, the lawyer for the nephew, responded by saying that "knowing what happened, I want to ask him what he then understands to be brutal sex”. He also denied Vangheluwe's claim that he paid the victim EUR 25,000 (USD 36,000) several times over.
Justice Minister Stefaan De Clercq said in a statement the church authorities "had to take measures to stop the irresponsible behaviour of the former bishop”.
"It is a slap in the face of his victims and all victims," De Clercq said.
Carina Van Cauter, of the parliamentary committee into sexual abuse, said Vangheluwe "tries to turn his victims into culprits. He throws salt in their wounds”.
Vangheluwe complained in the hour-long VT4 interview that the church was targeted in abuse probes, and that other sectors like sports organisations were let off too easily.
"Why is it different for priests than for other situations? Why should the church pay compensation and there is no compensation in other professions?," he said. "The church should not be pushed in a special corner."
During the interview, Vangheluwe sat relaxed, sometimes had a smile dancing on his lips, a twinkle in his eye and shook his shoulders while trying to minimise his abuse.
He said that despite acknowledging the abuse, he would never willingly forsake his priesthood. He said he had made his vows and he would "not break them”.
Vangheluwe was Belgium's longest-serving bishop when the scandal broke and was forced to admit he had abused his nephew, now in his early 40s, for years and even after becoming a bishop in 1984.
He said it started out at crowded family gatherings when lodgings were so cramped he had to sometimes share a bed with a child. "There was a moment when we were alone and it was almost a habit that it happened then," he said of the abuse.
Vangheluwe said it ended when the nephew told him years later "rather forcefully" to stop it.
The abuse of the second nephew also happened in "the early period" when he had to share bunks "and it also happened a little bit”.
A few years later the most of the family knew it.
Earlier this week, the Vatican used its new rules to crack down on sex abuse by high-ranking churchmen by ordering Vangheluwe to no longer work as a priest while officials determine his punishment.
Over the weekend, Belgian bishops reported that Vangheluwe had merely been sent outside the country for spiritual and psychological counselling.
The interview was set up in a secret location somewhere along the Loire river known for its grand chateaux and superb gardens in central France.
Sex abuse victims accuse the church of letting off the hook bishops who molested minors and see Vangheluwe's fate as a prime example.
Pope Benedict XVI will eventually decide his fate. He could be stripped of his priesthood.
First Published: Friday, April 15, 2011, 09:40