Coalition members lock horns in the wake of KU Leuven rape controversy

Coalition members lock horns in the wake of KU Leuven rape controversy
Credit: Belga

A debate linked to the conviction of a university professor for rape gave rise to spirited exchanges in the Flemish parliament on Wednesday, with representatives of coalition partners N-VA and Open VLD trading barbs on the issue.

"If 'doing a Zuhal' means not shrugging your shoulders and cynically deciding that it is not your problem when you see flagrant injustice, then I'm proud of the term," Tourism Minister Zuhal Demir (Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie, N-VA) said during a discussion on sexual misconduct at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven)

Earlier this week, Demir had announced that a subsidy granted to the university for construction works in connection with the celebration of its 600th anniversary was being put on hold until there was more clarity on the issue.

“As the largest university in the country, you cannot get away with being in the forefront for Flemish subsidies but hiding from taking up your social responsibilities," Demir said shortly after announcing the decision.

“I am very emotional about this,” said Gwendolyn Rutten of the Open VLD party. “You are a minister, and a minister must comply with the rule of law," Rutten told Zuhal. "If you feel you do not have to do so, then you should not be a minister. Then you'll be a citizen and do what you want.

At the centre of the dispute is the case of a KU Leuven lecturer accused of raping one of his students in 2016. An official complaint was filed in 2018, but the university did not intervene. Instead, it allowed him to keep on working for four months after the complaint and present research on its behalf. The lecturer was convicted last week and sentenced to 54 weeks in prison for rape.

The university said that, at the request of the court, it had refrained from taking any action on the issue to avoid alarming the suspect.

On Wednesday, the Flemish Government Commissioner at the university confirmed that there was no question of a cover-up.

According to Demir, the subsidy issue has been on the agenda of the regional administration over the past few weeks. She said she had simply asked for a little time to think, as she has done in previous cases. "It will now be a matter of a few weeks," she added.

Many legislators called for faster work on a central hotline for transgressive behaviour in the education sector. "It will only be ready by Summer 2023, whereas it is needed now," noted Katrien Schryvers of the Christen Democratisch en Vlaams (CD&V) party and Vooruit's Hannelore Goeman.

According to Johan Danen of the Groen party, the problem lies with the institutions themselves: “This is a structural problem,” he said, "so I am expecting fast, decisive measures from this government."

Finally, N-VA legislator Maaike De Vreese suggested that the participants in the discussion should all look into themselves to see whether they have always taken action when aware of transgressive behaviour.

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