Belgian bishop declines cardinal honor over abuse record

ROME (AP) — One of Pope Francis’ proposed new cardinals, the retired bishop of Ghent, Belgium, has bowed out of accepting the honor over his own insufficient response to cases of clergy sexual abuse, the Belgian bishops’ conference said.

Ghent Bishop Luc Van Looy’s decision highlights the Belgian church’s wretched record in protecting children from predator priests. He asked Francis for permission to decline the honor of becoming a cardinal in order “to not harm victims again,” and Francis accepted the request, the bishops said in a statement.

In May, Francis named Van Looy as one of 21 prelates who would become a new “prince of the church” during an Aug. 27 ceremony. At age 80, Van Looy is too old to participate in a future conclave to elect the next pope, but he was one of five men selected as cardinals in recognition of their lifetime of service to the church.

Van Looy, a priest of the Salesian religious order who served as a missionary in South Korea, had been bishop of the northwest Belgian diocese from 2004-2020. During the final five years of his term, he also served as the president of Caritas Europe, which is part of the Vatican’s Caritas Internationalis network of charities.

The Belgian bishops’ conference said the announcement that he would be made a cardinal had “generated a lot of positive reaction but also criticism of the fact that he didn’t always react with sufficient energy as bishop of Ghent against abuse in his pastoral work.”

The Belgian group Human Rights in the Church had complained in particular about the nomination.

Cardinals are the prime advisers to the pope and, for those under age 80, their main job involves coming to Rome in the event of a papal death or resignation to participate in the secret balloting to elect a new pope.

The online resource BishopAccountability.org cited at least three cases in which Van Looy reportedly mishandled cases. They included returning a priest convicted of sexually assaulting an altar boy to ministry, failing to turn over to judicial authorities files on six predator priests, and paying a victim of a pedophile $25,000 while knowing the priest was running an orphanage in Rwanda.

Van Looy also was bishop of Ghent when a local criminal court convicted a fellow Salesian priest who worked in the diocese of abuse in 2012. The priest, , Luk Delft, was later moved by the Salesians to the Central African Republic, where he reportedly abused two more young boys while he was head of the Caritas operation there, CNN reported in 2019.

“The real news here isn’t that this complicit bishop declined an honor, but that Pope Francis offered it to him in the first place,” said Bishop Accountability’s Anne Barrett Doyle.

The Belgian conference said it appreciated Van Looy’s decision to decline the honor and reiterated its commitment to fighting abuse in the church and placing the interests of victims first.

The Belgian Catholic Church has had a problematic record with abuse and cover-up: In 2010, the church acknowledged more than 500 cases of abuse dating from the 1950s after it commissioned a report that found at least 13 of the victims committed suicide.

That same year, the archbishop of Bruges resigned after admitting he had sexually abused his nephew for years while serving as a priest and bishop. The Bruges scandal also tarnished the then-head of the Belgian church, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, who was recorded urging the bishop’s’ victim to stay quiet.

The Salesian of Don Bosco religious order, which specializes in running schools, also has a poor abuse record, with at least 45 of its priests in the United States alone named on a list of credibly accused priests.

It is highly unusual for a proposed cardinal to decline the nomination, especially one over age 80, since the red hat then is a purely ceremonial honor. There have been a few cases in which popes have named cardinals “in pectore,” meaning the nomination is not made public, usually to protect the man if he lives in a place where Catholics are persecuted.

Only a few cardinals have had their rights and privileges rescinded or restricted after they were named. Among them are the late Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who was accused of sexual misconduct with seminarians and priests; and Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who is currently on trial in the Vatican on alleged financial improprieties that he denies.

An American cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, was defrocked entirely after the Vatican determined he sexually abused minors and seminarians.

Other cardinals have continued in the role despite evidence indicating they had covered-up for pedophiles under their authority.

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