A tape has been leaked that records a Belgian cardinal asking an abuse victim to keep quiet during a meeting in April this year.
A spokesman for Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels said the transcript of an April meeting with a victim of clergy sex abuse had been interpreted out of context.
Toon Osaer, spokesman for the cardinal, who retired in January as archbishop of Mechelen-Brussel, said “there was no intention of any cover-up”.
He told the American Catholic News Service on Monday: “Seen from today’s perspective, the cardinal realises he was rather naïve to think he could help the family in question reach a reconciliation.
“At that moment, however, the family didn’t want to make public something they’d kept secret for 24 years,” he said.
Belgium’s Flemish-language De Standaard and Het Nieuwsblad dailies published an alleged transcript of the cardinal’s April meeting with relatives of the nephew of Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of Bruges. The unnamed nephew was abused by his uncle before and after the bishop’s 1985 consecration.
Mr Osaer said that Cardinal Danneels had not kept notes from the “informal private meeting” on April 8 and could not verify the transcript’s accuracy. He added that he believed the text was “broadly correct” but said the context had been “totally different” than newspapers currently claimed.
“This was a totally confidential meeting, and the family intended to keep it all within the family,” the spokesman said. “This is why the cardinal tried to see if a reconciliation was possible. He asked the victim if Vangheluwe should resign immediately, pointing out that we would then have to provide an explanation for his departure. He said if the resignation could be left for another year, it would not be necessary to bring the family’s internal affairs into the open.”
Mr Osaer said that Cardinal Danneels had offered his advice because the family “disagreed sharply” over the best course of action.
Bishop Vangheluwe resigned on April 23 after admitting abusing his nephew for 13 years.
He said in a resignation statement: “Over the course of the last decades, I repeatedly recognised how I sinned against him and his family and I asked forgiveness. But this did not appease him. Nor me.
“The media storm in the last few weeks has reinforced the trauma,” the bishop said. “It is no longer possible to continue in this situation.
“I am deeply sorry for what I did and I offer my sincerest apologies to the victim, to his family, to the whole Catholic community and society in general.
“I offered my resignation as Bishop of Bruges to Pope Benedict XVI. It was accepted on Friday. Therefore, I have retired,” he said.
According to the text of the leaked tape Cardinal Danneels drew a distinction between “public and private punishment” of the bishop and suggested “forgiveness and forgiving” to the unnamed victim, who said he would leave the decision about going public to the cardinal.
In a statement to Belgian newspapers issued last week Mr Osaer said Cardinal Danneels “condemned and profoundly regretted” the abuse by Bishop Vangheluwe but also regretted the April meeting had been recorded without the knowledge of those present.
In a May pastoral letter to Catholics the bishops of Belgium asked forgiveness of victims of priestly sexual abuse and promised wide-ranging steps to curb the problem in the future.
In late June, while the bishops were meeting in Brussels, police seized 475 files compiled by a Church commission on clergy sexual abuse. Police detained the bishops for nine hours and took away their cellphones, and a laptop belonging to Cardinal Danneels. In their search for hidden documents they even broke open tombs of two cardinals in Belgium’s main cathedral.
Pope Benedict XVI, in a letter of solidarity to the Belgian bishops, described the raid as “surprising and deplorable”.
Several months later the Brussels department of public prosecutions ruled that it was “irregular”, meaning that all seized documents had to be returned and any investigation based on the documents had to be dropped.
Last week Belgian Justice Minister Stefaan De Clerck called for a new Church commission on clergy abuse and urged the Catholic Church to “continue assuming its responsibilities”.
Mr Osaer said the bishops’ conference had already decided to set up a new commission and would announce its members by mid-September.