Catholic bishop, under fire for abuse, declines cardinal’s honor

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An earlier version of this story stated that the Diocese of Ghent failed to intervene to stop the activities of an accused priest in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Ghent. Bishop-Accountability says Bishop Lucas Van Looy notified civil authorities in 2014.

When Pope Francis announced in May his intention to create 21 new cardinals, one name stood out to a group of defenders of clerical abuse in Belgium: Lucas Van Looy. After facing weeks of pressure over his record of handling abuse cases, the future cardinal has now asked Francis not to receive the honor – a highly unusual request which the pope has granted.

The Belgian bishops’ conference said Van Looy’s request was made to “prevent victims of such abuse from being harmed again”.

For a church badly scarred by years of abuse scandals, the episode showed the far-reaching repercussions that can come after a church leader is tied to mishandling of affairs. It also raises questions about the Vatican’s process for reviewing the records of those selected by Francis to become cardinals – a position that involves a lifetime of good church service.

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“Everyone in Belgium knew about it,” said Lieve Halsberghe, an advocate for victims of clerical abuse in the country. She pointed out that Van Looy’s request “did not come from his conscience. It came because there were protests from a human rights group.

The Vatican did not provide a statement on the matter, and a spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

The Belgian bishops’ conference said Francis’ initial decision to appoint Van Looy cardinal prompted “many positive reactions”. But there were also criticisms, the conference said, “of the fact that he did not always react strongly enough” against “abuses in the pastoral relationship” while he was bishop of Ghent from 2003 to 2019.

Van Looy had been one of 21 people selected by Francis for the honor, a decision that will be formalized – for the other 20 – at a consistory in August. Even if Van Looy had been made a cardinal, he would have been unable to participate in a future conclave due to his 80-year-old age. (Only cardinals under 80 can help select the next pope.)

Belgium’s bishops’ conference did not provide details of Van Looy’s accusations of wrongdoing.

However, his name has appeared in several past news reports. He is listed on Bishop-Accountability.org, a clearing house for clerical abuse, on a page dedicated to bishops who mishandled cases. The site mentions a Belgian predatory priest accused of abuse both in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Ghent.

Van Looy was not leading the diocese of Ghent when the charges were first made, but after becoming bishop the diocese sent $25,000 to a Congolese victim in 2005. However, he did not step in to inform civil authorities of the priest’s ongoing activities – working at a nonprofit to help genocide orphans in Rwanda – until 2014, Bishop-Accountability said in a statement Friday.

Although Van Looy personally denounced the cruelties of the abuse, describing the “inhuman suffering” of the victims, he also admitted not having informed the judicial authorities of six letters he had received relating to cases, according to a Belgian media account. of 2010. Van Looy called these letters “less pressing” because the accusations involved retired priests.

Van Looy is part of the religious order of the Salesians of Don Bosco. Belgian Salesians were embroiled in a scandal stemming from a 2019 CNN investigation into a Belgian priest, found guilty of abuse by a court in Ghent, who was later sent to the Central African Republic, where he was again charged of abuse.

Belgium has faced a tsunami of damaging abuse-related revelations, many of which surfaced in 2010, in what leaders have described as one of the most difficult crises in the history of the Belgian Catholic Church. A report published in 2010 described hundreds of cases over five decades and noted that 13 victims had been driven to commit suicide as a result of the trauma.

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