- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 12, 2011

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican has sanctioned a Belgian bishop who resigned last year after admitting he had sexually abused his nephew, saying he can no longer act as a priest in public and may risk further church sanctions.

The Holy See on Tuesday clarified the punishment against former Bruges Bishop Roger Vangheluwe after Belgian bishops reported over the weekend that he merely had been sent outside Belgium for spiritual and psychological counseling, a seemingly cushy punishment, given the seriousness of the crime.

The decision was the first known application of the Vatican’s new sex-abuse norms approved last year giving the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith jurisdiction to investigate and punish bishops — not just priests — who abuse minors. The ultimate possible penalty: defrocking, or laicization in church-speak.

Previously, when bishops committed canonical crimes, the pope dealt with them by delegating the cases to various Vatican offices or the Roman Rota, a Vatican court.

The Vatican long has been accused by sex-abuse victims of having let off the hook those bishops who themselves molested minors or helped cover up the crimes of priests who did. The change in the norms was designed, at least in theory, to let the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith more easily go after abusive bishops and cardinals.

The pope, however, has the final say on Bishop Vangheluwe’s punishment.

In a statement, the Vatican’s press office said Pope Benedict XVI eventually would decide on a sentence based on Bishop Vangheluwe’s diagnosis and prognosis from the psychological treatment he is receiving in exile. The pontiff also will take into account “the suffering of the victims and the need for justice.”

It said that while Bishop Vangheluwe is being treated, he isn’t allowed to work publicly as a priest or bishop.

Bishop Vangheluwe, 74, resigned a year ago this month as Belgium’s longest-serving bishop after admitting he had abused a boy for years as a priest and even after becoming a bishop in 1984. It later was established that the victim, who is now in his early 40s, was his nephew.

Revelations of Bishop Vangheluwe’s abuse came amid the 2010 global eruption of the sex-abuse scandal, when thousands of people came forward in Europe and beyond with reports of priests who had abused them, bishops who covered up for the prelates, and Vatican officials who ignored the crimes for decades.

The crisis was particularly acute in Belgium, where in the weeks following Bishop Vangheluwe’s resignation a church-appointed commission reported that hundreds of people had come forward with tales of abuse that had led to at least 13 suicides.

The revelations prompted Belgian police to raid the home and offices of Belgium’s former top churchmen, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, and open the tombs of two archbishops north of Brussels in a search for hidden documents — moves that drew the stern condemnation of the Vatican.

The decision by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to go after Bishop Vangheluwe and prosecute bishops for canonical-abuse crimes comes as prosecutors in criminal courts are for the first time targeting bishops and high-ranking churchmen for sex-abuse-related crimes and cover-ups.

Philadelphia has been rocked by the indictment of a high-ranking church official on child-endangerment charges for having moved known abusers around. Monsignor William Lynn, the former secretary for clergy in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, faces up to 28 years in prison if convicted. His defense lawyers have said Monsignor Lynn didn’t have any children under his care and never thought any children were being put at risk.

And next month, a federal court in Ottawa is due to put Bishop Raymond Lahey on trial on child pornography charges. Bishop Lahey resigned as head of the Antigonish, Nova Scotia, diocese in 2009 after authorities conducting a random search of his laptop computer at Ottawa’s airport said they found child pornography.

Vatican officials said the doctrine office is awaiting the results of the Ottawa trial before proceeding with its own case against Bishop Lahey. Under the same May 2010 revision of the Vatican’s sex-abuse norms, acquiring, possessing and distributing pornography of children under age 14 years is considered to be an equally serious canonical crime that is dealt with by the doctrine office.

There are several other bishops in the United States and Europe who have resigned in recent years after they were accused of abuse, including Norwegian Bishop Georg Mueller, whose 2009 resignation was made public during the height of last year’s scandal.

Beyond Bishop Lahey, Vatican officials declined to say which other bishops might come before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for abuse-related canonical punishments.

One of the highest-ranking churchmen to resign because he himself was an abuser was the late Austrian Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer. He was forced to resign as archbishop of Vienna in 1995 over claims he had molested youths at a monastery in the 1970s.

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