Europe

Belgian Church pledges to focus on abuse victims

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Media captionArchbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard: "The suffering and the testimonies we have heard make us shiver"

The new head of Belgium's Catholic Church has pledged to focus on the victims of alleged sexual abuse in a first attempt to rebuild public trust.

Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard said that although the Church would not be able to offer immediate solutions, it would set up a victims' support centre.

An independent commission said abuse occurred in every diocese over decades and that some victims were infants.

Pope Benedict XVI's spokesman said the findings had caused him "much pain".

"The Pope is following very closely what is happening in the Belgian Catholic Church," Fr Federico Lombardi told RTL television, according to the AFP news agency.

"Like everybody, he feels much pain after the publication of the report, which again reveals the huge suffering of victims and gives us an even more vivid sense of the gravity of the crimes."

At a news conference in Brussels earlier on Monday, Archbishop Leonard said the Roman Catholic Church would offer "maximum availability" to the victims of sexual abuse.

"We have to listen to their questions, to re-establish their dignity and help to heal the suffering they have endured," he said.

"We want to learn the lessons of the errors of the past. The reflections and conclusions contained in the report [on sexual abuse in the church] will be taken on board," he added.

He said the Church wanted to create a centre for "recognition, reconciliation and healing", but that given the scale of the challenge, it would not be ready before the end of the year.

He added the Church wanted to co-operate more closely with police investigating allegations of abuse, but he gave no details of how it would do so.

He also warned those responsible that they will face the sanctions of canon law, including lifelong exclusion from the Church.

One victims' group said the setting up of a centre controlled by the Church was not enough.

"There cannot be an investigation commission on crimes committed within an institution controlled by this institution itself," said a spokeswoman for the Droits de l'Homme dans l'Eglise.

This attempt to find a solution to the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church in Belgium provides more questions than answers, says the BBC's Jonty Bloom in Brussels.

If the Church hopes to draw a line under this affair today, it is likely to be disappointed, our correspondent adds.

Shock

The level, extent and duration of abuse revealed last week shocked even members of the commission set up by the Church to investigate the allegations, he said.

It found that abuse occurred at the hands of priests, teachers, lay workers and in at least one case, a bishop, and totalled some 300 cases.

The commission's investigation said it found no evidence of a systematic cover-up.

Belgian media have accused the Church of seeking to hide abuse despite prosecutions of abusers.

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Media captionBarbara Blaine: "The priest started to abuse me when I was turning thirteen"

Two-thirds of victims were boys, but 100 girls also suffered. Some 13 have committed suicide as a result.

While the independent commission headed by Peter Adriaenssens said last week that it had found no indication that the Church had systematically sought to cover up cases, Mr Adriaenssens said its findings were a "body blow" to the Church in Belgium.

The reconciliation centre will build on the work of the commission which was shut down after a police raid to seize its files earlier this year. An appeals court ruled last week that the raid was illegal, and the files could not be used by prosecutors.

Many alleged victims came forward to testify to the commission after the Bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, resigned this year, admitting to having sexually abused a boy before and after becoming a bishop.

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