Brussels: Hundreds of sex abuse victims have come forward in Belgium with harrowing accounts of molestation by Catholic clergy that reportedly led to at least 13 suicides and affected children as young as two, a special commission said Friday.
Professor Peter Adriaenssens, chairman of the commission, said the abuse in Belgium may have been even more rampant than the 200-page report suggests.
"Reality is worse than what we present here today because not everyone shares such things automatically in a first contact with the commission," he told reporters.
Adriaenssens, a child psychiatrist who has worked with trauma victims for 23 years, said nothing had prepared him for the stories of abuse that blighted the lives of victims.
"We don`t just talk about touching. We are talking about oral and anal abuse, forced masturbation and mutual masturbation. We talk about people who have gone through serious abuse," Adriaenssens said.
Most of the abuse happened during the 1960s and 1970s, he said.
The Roman Catholic Church in Belgium experienced the findings as "a body blow," Adriaenssens said.
Belgian Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard said he would react on Monday to the report. The Vatican had no immediate comment.
But Tournai Bishop Guy Harpigny, who deals with the issue for the church, praised Adriaenssens`s work and told VRT television that "now, the time has come to listen to the victims."
The report`s findings are the latest embarrassment for Belgium`s Catholic Church, which is still reeling after the April resignation of Bruges Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, who admitted to having sexually abused a nephew for years when he was a priest and bishop.
Friday`s report said 507 witnesses came forward with stories of molestation at the hands of clergy over the past decades. It says those abused included children who were two, four, five and six years old.
Family members or friends said 13 victims committed suicide that "was related to sexual abuse by clergy," the report said. Six other witnesses said they had attempted suicide.
"It is notable how often one issue comes back in the witness reports: the high number of suicides," the report said.
The number of those coming forward with their stories and testimonies, however, could be only a fraction of those actually abused, Adriaenssens said. He added several priests cooperated with the panel, which had the support of the Belgian church.
"We saw how priests, called up by the commission and asked to help seek the truth, were willing to set up the list of 10, 15, 20 victims they abused during boarding school while the commission knew only of one," he said.
Archbishop Leonard, who was appointed earlier this year, said he will come forward with a new initiative Monday on how to deal with cases of abuse, prevent further abuse and help victims seek closure.
His spokesman Jurgen Mettepenningen said the archbishop didn`t comment Friday so as not to distract attention from the report`s contents.
Leonard`s predecessor, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, acknowledged Wednesday that damage control often took precedence in Belgium over concerns for victims in sexual abuse cases involving clergy.
The crisis in the Belgian church was exacerbated last month, when secret tapes were published of Danneels speaking with the man whom Vangheluwe abused and suggesting a cover-up until Vangheluwe was to retire in 2011. Danneels said Wednesday he should have asked Vangheluwe to resign immediately.