GHENT, Belgium (AFP) – Dozens of victims of a child sex scandal in the Belgian Catholic church on Wednesday announced the launch of legal action against the Holy See, the first such suit in Europe.
Lawyers and victims said at a news conference a summons was on its way to Rome as well as to Belgian bishops to appear before a Belgian civil court for failing to stop sexual abuse by priests and church workers under their responsibility.
“The group of victims of sexual abuse in the church have summoned the Holy See, the Belgian bishops and superiors of religious orders and congregations in the Ghent Court of First Instance,” they said.
A 40-page summons is being translated into Italian before being served on the Vatican.
The group of some 80 plaintiffs, which lawyers said was growing by the day, said it was the first time in Europe that legal proceedings had been initiated against the church authorities.
“The Pope is the head of the Holy See,” said lawyer Walter Van Steenbrugge. “He is the appointer and authority over the bishops, which means that he can be liable for their errors. In addition, he can be held liable for his own faults.
“He neglected to intervene himself and to give instructions, which meant that abuse was liable to continue and the damage was able to increase.”
Belgium’s Catholics are reeling over revelations last year of nearly 500 cases of abuse by priests and church workers since the 1950s, including 13 known suicides among victims.
Among several victims who stood up to denounce the church’s failure to stem the sexual abuse — grey-haired men in their 50s and 60s — was journalist and author Roel Verschueren, abused by Jesuits from the age of 12 to 14 “just around the corner from here,” he said.
“We’ve all been living for years with a church which is in denial,” he told AFP. “Now we’re turning the situation around. We’re in charge, we’re choosing an independent judicial framework.”
Verschueren said the victims first and foremost wanted the church to admit its guilt and to pay for the trauma of lost childhoods and lost years.
“The victims of sexual abuse are often people who’ve lost their pride and self-dignity,” he said. “They need fast help. In the United States, people win compensation of 160 million dollars, here and elsewhere in Europe you’re offered 5,000 euros to shut up.”
Accused of showing little compassion for the victims as evidence of misconduct piled up in recent months, the Belgian church this week offered compensation via an as yet inexistent arbitration panel suggested by parliament.
One of the lawyers, Christine Mussche, said “this is a positive move by the church but for the moment it’s no more than words.”
Under the class action suit launched Wednesday, the Ghent Tribunal is expected to set hearings for the case in September, the lawyers said.
The scandal in the Belgian church surfaced last April with revelations that the bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, had abused a nephew for 13 years.
He was exiled by the Vatican to a French monastery for spiritual reflection but while there confessed in an interview to abusing another nephew, and then went missing.
That development further angered victims of church sexual abuse and left left the Vatican “stupefied,” coming days after it sent him into exile.