The importance of being accountable

A horrific story out of Belgium involving a bishop who had admitted last year to abusing his own nephew just got a whole lot worse. 

Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, the bishop of Bruges for more than 25 years, resigned in 2010 after admitting that he had abused his nephew both when he was a priest and a bishop. The disgraced prelate has now given an explosive interview on Belgian television in which he admitted the abuse of a second nephew. News reports suggested that he sought to minimize the significance of his actions and expressed little remorse. 

Bishop Vangheluwe has been suspended from the priesthood pending a Vatican investigation, and how he will be disciplined now that he has confessed so brazenly will be interpreted by many as a sign of how serious the Church is about addressing this issue.  

Combined with the recent uproar in Philadelphia over the suspension of 21 accused priests, bishops are once again in the hot seat. It has become something of a cliché in the last 10 years that “the bishops just don’t get it.” This grand generalization usually refers not to bishops who have been abusers, but to bishops who often seem to have ignored the warnings of abuse, or who have been quicker to blame the messengers of scandal rather than those who committed the sins and those who looked the other way. 

But it is important to remember that for every bishop who ducks his responsibilities, there are bishops who most certainly understand the gravity of this scandal, the pain of the victims, and the humiliation that has been heaped on the Church. While bishops like Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York and Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston have been forthright in their comments, perhaps no one has so publicly and personally reflected on the scandal as Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin.  

In a remarkably humble reflection at a Liturgy of Lament and Repentance at Dublin’s St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in February, Archbishop Martin addressed the failure of the Church to protect its children: “How did this happen in the Church of Jesus Christ where as we heard in the Gospel children are presented to us as signs of the kingdom? How did we not see you in your suffering and abandonment?” 

In a speech in April at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Archbishop Martin gave another personal reflection on the scandals and his own sense of inadequacy in the face of the suffering and the pain and the shock.  

He also emphasized what remains a sore point for many in our country: 

“I still cannot accept a situation that no one need assume accountability in the face of the terrible damage that was done to children in the Church of Christ in Dublin and in the face of how that damage was addressed.”  

Later, he spoke of the importance of keeping the victim first and foremost in our minds, and he was firm on the importance of not allowing abuser priests back into ministry. “We should not overlook the fact,” the archbishop said, “that the very words of Jesus regarding those who harm children are among his harshest and least conciliatory.” 

And in comments that apply to the shameful Belgian bishop, Archbishop Martin spoke of the lack of “a real and unconditional admission of guilt and responsibility on the part of priest offenders. … Survivors have repeatedly told me that one of the greatest insults and hurts they have experienced is to see the lack of real remorse on the part of offenders even when they plead guilty in court.”  

Or, as in the case of Bishop Vangheluwe, when they rationalize their acts on national television. 

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.