- Associated Press - Monday, May 30, 2011

BRUSSELS (AP) — The Roman Catholic Church in Belgium said Monday it is willing to pay compensation to victims of sexual abuse by clergy to help those abused restore their dignity.

Belgium’s bishops and religious leaders said in a statement they are “deeply touched and distraught” by revelations over the past year, when more than 500 witnesses came forward with harrowing accounts of molestation in the country by Catholic clergy spanning decades.

But the leader of a group of survivors said she would put her faith only in actions, not in anything the bishops said.

“Whatever the bishops are saying is blah, blah,” said Lieve Halsberghe, the leader in Belgium of Snap, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “We need to see action before we believe anything they say.”

The decision follows months of wavering and deliberations within the church on how best to deal with the crisis, which has shaken the institution to its core.

The religious leaders said in a statement that the abuse had “given the victims great suffering and left traumas, which often lasted for many years.”

They said they regretted the suffering and trauma “wholeheartedly” and “appreciated the courage of the victims to come forward with the painful facts.”

For years, victims organizations complained that the religious leadership totally ignored their pleas and protected abusing priests by simply moving them from parish to parish instead of punishing them.

A parliamentary inquiry committee set up in the wake of the scandal heard church officials acknowledge that they often were aloof to abuse problems and the needs of the victims.

The church officials said that, in the wake of the inquiry, they had agreed to enter arbitration to consider compensation in cases where the legal time limit for filing suit has expired. Compensation would be agreed to on a case-by-case basis.

They also vowed it would never happen again.

“The bishops and religious leaders are unanimous and steadfast to do all possible to make sure such serious facts, which society rightly deplores, never happen again,” the statement said.

Ms. Halsberghe greeted that statement with derision, saying the abuse may be continuing today. She said her group is working on the cases of priests who have been abusing for four or five decades yet continue to be allowed by the church to take care of “minors in precarious situations — poor, with no power.”

“The bishops know that the justice system in Belgium is weak, the judiciary is very weak, and they are trying to hide behind it,” she said.

The statement by the religious leaders said they want to “help victims restore their dignity and, according to their needs, provide financial help.”

A former Belgian bishop at the center of one of the Roman Catholic Church’s biggest pedophile scandals said last month that he had abused two nephews and insisted he had no plans to abandon the priesthood.

Former Bishop Roger Vangheluwe called 13 years of sexual abuse of one nephew, which started at age 5, as no more than “a little piece of intimacy.” He said the abuse of a second nephew was very short.

Bishop Vangheluwe said last month he fully realized what he did was wrong and often went to confession about it. The 74-year-old bishop resigned a year ago, just as the sex abuse scandal was spreading across Europe.

The church long pleaded for time to set up a system to punish all abusers and provide some measure of relief for victims.

But Ms. Halsberghe said she feared any compensation might come only in exchange for an agreement to keep quiet, saying past payoffs had carried confidentiality agreements.

“I think this is a cruel thing and absolutely against human rights,” she said. “Survivors need to talk to heal. You cannot heal without talking.”

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