“From Hero to Zero.” This was the unflattering headline of an editorial in De Standaard, one of Belgium’s leading newspapers. The “hero” who, according to the daily, had become a “zero,” was none other than the internationally known and respected Cardinal Godfried Danneels, the retired archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, former president of the Belgian bishops’ conference and former international president of the Catholic peace organization Pax Christi. The international (British) magazine The Tablet once called him “one of the top intellectuals of the College of Cardinals.” 

In Belgium (and abroad) Cardinal Danneels was an extremely popular and frequently requested guest on television talk shows. For he was not only a great intellectual, but also a great communicator, liked by Catholics and nonbelievers. He had the knack to reach the hearts of the audience and to translate the doctrine of the Church into modern language. 

Victim breaks silence 

The reason for the public downfall of the Belgian cardinal was the publication of the leaked transcripts of his confidential meeting with a victim of child abuse (and his family). The victim, now a man in his 40s, was not just one of the more than 400 Belgian victims of child abuse of the past decades reported to the Church Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Context of Pastoral Relations. That commission, better known as the Adriaenssens Commission (named after its lay president, psychology professor Peter Adriaenssens of the Catholic University of Louvain), was established by Cardinal Danneels himself in order to discover the scope of clerical sexual abuse in Belgium. 

The victim Cardinal Danneels met in early April was the nephew of Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, a friend of the cardinal and the bishop of Bruges, the diocese where the cardinal had been priest and professor of theology before becoming a bishop. Bishop Vangheluwe was not only the uncle of the victim, but also his perpetrator: He had sexually abused his nephew between the ages of 5 and 18, and the abuse had even continued a few years after Bishop Vangheluwe had been become bishop in 1985. 

The family had known about the abuse — after it stopped — but kept it private for more than 20 years. Due to the tsunami of child abuse cases suddenly made public, the victim could no longer bear the silence around the abuse and the popularity of his uncle bishop. He asked his uncle to step down as bishop (or he would make the whole story public). The bishop refused. 

Forgiveness ‘not enough’ 

It was in this context that Bishop Vangheluwe made an appeal to his friend, Cardinal Danneels. The former archbishop knew nothing of the abuse by the bishop of Bruges, who now briefed him with few details and asked the cardinal to meet the victim and his family. The cardinal initially said no, but Bishop Vangheluwe told him the nephew and his family were already on the way. And so Cardinal Danneels fell into what he later described as a trap; as did the victim and the family, too, for they had thought they were going to be meeting the new archbishop of Brussels, André-Mutien Léonard, who holds more authority than the retired cardinal. 

The meeting was a disaster. Unprepared and confronted with a quarreling family, Cardinal Danneels said the wrong things. He thought the family, keeping the whole affair silent for more than 20 years, did not have the intention to make the story public, so he asked the victim to drop his demand for his uncle to step down; the bishop of Bruges, being 74, would retire anyway next year. In his “pastoral” approach, the cardinal suggested the possibility of forgiveness and insisted the bishop make an apology. The victim said: “That is not enough!” 

The meeting ended in disarray. The cardinal suggested another meeting. But events took over. The victim contacted the Adriaenssens Commission. Bishop Vangheluwe resigned on April 22. The pope accepted the resignation immediately. (He was succeeded by Cardinal Danneels’ former auxiliary bishop, Jozef De Kesel). On April 23, Archbishop Léonard and commission president Adriaenssens held a press conference. The Catholic community of Belgium was in shock, and the press lay in wait to publish more. 

Cardinal off balance 

On Aug. 28, the leading Belgian newspaper De Standaard (Flemish — that is, Dutch speaking) published the leaked transcripts of the April 8 meeting of Cardinal Danneels with the victim, his family and Bishop Vangheluwe. Without consent of the cardinal, the victim had secretly recorded the meeting, which the cardinal believed to be confidential. 

Some saw the publication of the transcripts as timed to keep the “Church cover-up” narrative alive after a botched federal investigation into clerical sex abuse (see sidebar). 

The transcripts were far from flattering for the once respected and admired cardinal. This was not the great communicator speaking with empathy, as people knew him, this was a stammering man not finding his words and not letting the victim finish talking (“I know the facts,” Cardinal Danneels said once as he cut short the victim, who was starting to reveal the past). Because Cardinal Danneels never suggested that the victim could seek justice in court or open up a file at the Commission Adriaenssens, the public supposed that Cardinal Danneels was more interested in the image of the Church than in the misery of the victim. The fact that he never asked the bishop of Bruges to resign was also not compatible with his image of a compassionate bishop. 

The transcripts revealed an unknown aspect of the cardinal’s personality, only known to his inner circle: that the great communicator feels uneasy in personal confrontations; more so in a confrontation he had not sought. But set against his long record — not least in creating a Church commission to investigate sex abuse — the transcript offers an incomplete and some say unfair characterization of the retired churchman. 

In a recent interview with the Belgian news magazine Knack, Cardinal Danneels acknowledged his shortcomings (“It was my duty to insist on the resignation of Vangheluwe,” and “I should have given the victim the opportunity to tell the whole story”), saying he had been naive (“I should have refused the invitation to meet the family”). 

A cardinal able to accept his shortcomings and willing to admit publicly his guilt of negligence is not the “zero” the press labeled him; he is at least an honest man. His courage of humility can set an example to others in the Church who prefer forgetting to apologizing. 

Mark Van de Voorde writes from Belgium.

Police Raid (Sidebar)

The Belgian government announced it will pursue its probe into clerical sex abuse despite a court ruling in early September that its raid of Church offices and seizure of documents and computers was illegal. 

The June raid, dubbed “Operation Chalice” by police, involved a search of the offices of the archbishop of Brussels, the private apartment of Cardinal Godfried Danneels and offices in Louvain of a Church commission investigating abuse claims. In front of the press, computers, laptops, thousands of documents and archives were taken away, including more than 400 files of child abuse cases, deposited in confidence by the victims to the Church commission. 

Police have had to return all that material, following the court ruling. But the justice minister said he saw the ruling as, “Continue, but in a correct way.’ It was not a signal to say ‘stop the whole inquiry,’” according to Reuters. 

Cardinal Danneels’ successor said he welcomed the judicial investigation, provided it is “focused and carried out in a correct legal manner.”