In a new development concerning claims that Cardinal Godfried Danneels asked a sexual abuse victim to cover up a bishop’s abuse, the cardinal’s lawyer has accused a newspaper of committing “character assassination” on the prelate using selective highlighting and “extremely biased commentary.”
The lawyer said the cardinal actually caused the abusive bishop for the first time to admit his guilt, to apologize and beg forgiveness “in front of his entire family.”
“Whoever considers this a meaningless or unimportant event is wrong,” commented Fernand Keuleneer in a statement provided to CNA.
“Not once during the meeting does the cardinal exert any form of pressure on the abuse victim. At multiple instances the cardinal asks what the victim wants to be done,” the lawyer said.
The former Bishop of Bruges Roger Vangheluwe’s 42-year-old nephew, who accused his uncle of sexually abusing him, made a recording of his April 8 meeting with the cardinal. Transcripts of the recording were published in two Belgian newspapers on Saturday.
According to Reuters’ summary of the press accounts, the tapes feature the former head of the Belgian Catholic Church urging the alleged victim to accept a private apology or to wait a year until Bishop Vangheluwe’s retirement before making his accusations public.
Cardinal Danneels’ lawyer said the prelate was suggesting these several alternatives “at the explicit and repeated request of the victim.” The lawyer claimed that the victim and his family wanted to avoid a public family scandal, noting they had been aware of the abuse for 24 years and “never attempted to contact either the press or the police.”
The Belgian newspaper De Standaard committed “character assassination” on the cardinal, both in its commentary and its method of putting certain paragraphs in red, he contended. The paper did not publish the entirety of the conversation, which reportedly turned into “a painful family dispute” at several times.
The cardinal left the meeting with the understanding that another meeting would follow, but that meeting never took place because Bishop Vangheluwe resigned. The cardinal reputedly played the role of “a mediator in a confidential discussion.” Thus it was not his role to alert anyone else and no legal remedies were still available under church law or civil law.
“Almost everyone agrees that legally, the cardinal did nothing wrong,” Keuleneer stated. “We moreover consider the cardinal has acted in a morally irreproachable way.”
Cardinal Danneels' Explanation
According to the lawyer’s summary of events, at the beginning of April 2010 the cardinal received a short phone call from then-Bishop of Bruges Roger Vangheluwe, who admitted he had been sexually abusing his nephew from 1973 to 1986.
“As anybody in a similar situation would be, the cardinal is shocked and can barely respond,” Keuleneer said.
Days later on April 8, Bishop Vangheluwe approached the cardinal at a Catholic senior citizen’s association meeting, which was honouring Cardinal Danneels. The bishop asked him to attend and facilitate a meeting between himself and his family.
The cardinal was “reluctant” and preferred another date, but the bishop said his family was already on the way.
“If the cardinal has been naïve, it is at this point, when accepting the request to mediate,” the cardinal’s lawyer argued. “But it would be a very cynical position to hold against Cardinal Danneels the fact that he opted to attempt a reconciliation in a family tragedy, and in doing so, exposed himself to potential negative press coverage, rather than choosing the easy way out by shifting the problem to the papal nuncio.”
The cardinal was “unprepared.” He assumed his role was to mediate in a case which had been kept a family secret and assumed that some family members wished to achieve reconciliation and some reparation “without a public scandal.”
However, according to Keuleneer’s account, the bishop’s nephew expected he would have the opportunity to address his uncle’s “employer,” somebody in a position to dismiss the bishop. The nephew also expected the new Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, André-Mutien Léonard, to be attending.
The cardinal reportedly asked the victim what he wanted to be done several times and whether he wanted it to be publicized. The victim replied that he left the case up to “you,” using the plural form.
Asked whether the bishop should resign, the victim replied that Bishop Vangheluwe should decide what to do. The victim said that he desired the bishop to confess openly in front of the family.
Media reports also focused on the cardinal’s proposal that the victim forgive his abuser. The lawyer explained this as “the Catholic and moreover correct answer towards a repenting sinner.
“An abuse victim who is able to forgive – after penance and repair by the offender whatever that still can be repaired – is a happier individual in comparison to a victim who merely scored in court or who only received financial compensation,” he continued. “Forgiveness and reconciliation are there not only for those who receive forgiveness but also for those who grant forgiveness.”
Cardinal Danneels’ lawyer also responded to claims that the victim published a part of the conversations because he had been accused of blackmail. He said it was not the cardinal who spread such a rumor.
“(I)t remains completely unclear how destroying one reputation can repair the tarnishing of another one,” commented Keuleneer in the statement provided to CNA.