The largest source of sexual abuse by clergy in recent years was schools, according to a new report compiled for the Belgian bishops’ conference by professor emeritus Manu Keirse of Leuven university. The trigger for a flood of reports of sexual abuse by members of the clergy came in 2010, when it was revealed that Roger Vangheluwe, then bishop of Bruges, had for years been abusing a member of his own family. Following an enquiry, the Catholic church set up ten reporting points where victims could bring their stories.
In 43% of the 426 cases reported, the abuse had taken place in schools, making it by far the largest single category of abuse. Abuse within the parish accounted for 28% of cases, abuse of altar boys for 5%, in health care 5%, and in youth movements 4%. In another 15% of cases the circumstances varied, including family surroundings as in the Vangheluwe case.
Professor Keirse is the chair of the Interdiocesan Commission for the Protection of Children and Young People, and has been involved with the investigation of abuse by clergy since the beginning.
He told DeMorgen he was not surprised that schools – particularly boarding schools – made up the largest share of cases. “Altar boys can go home after Mass,” he said. “The time-span when they are alone with the priest is far shorter. Things were quite different at boarding schools, where many cases of abuse took place. Those children were in constant contact with clergy, and only went home now and again.”
He also examined the figures of cases reported to the commission set up on the orders of a parliamentary committee with the cooperation of, but independent from, the church. The commission received more complaints – a total of 628 – showing that 59% of male victims had been abused at school, compared with 18% of women.
And his report shows that abuse by clergy is a secret carried around by victims for years, if not decades. In 92% of cases reported to the commission, the offence itself took place 28 or more years ago; in 56% more than 48 years. The vast majority of cases were now too old to be prosecuted, almost all being settled by an agreement between church and victim. In the meantime, the Catholic church paid out a total of €3.9 million in damages.