The Danneels tapes (1): why I hesitate
The British media are today running a story (as is the NYT) from the weekend's Belgian press that the former Archbishop of Brussels, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, sought to persuade the victim of abuse by a bishop to stay quiet.
On 23 April -- see my post here -- that bishop, 73-year-old Roger Vangheluwe, the Bishop of Bruges for more than 25 years, suddenly and spectacularly resigned, admitting that while still a priest, and for a while while he was a bishop, he had sexually abused a young man in his "entourage". The move left everyone around him reeling. The bishop is currently in a monastery, keeping silence, while police investigate.
It transpires now that two weeks before that shock resignation, on 8 April, the victim -- it turns out to be the bishop's nephew, an unnamed 42-year-old -- went to see Cardinal Danneels, 77 (pictured), who retired in January this year. The victim secretly recorded the meeting, the transcripts of which were published at the weekend by two Flemish-language newspapers.
The victim told Danneels he could no longer keep quiet about how his uncle, Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, sexually abused him between the ages of 5 and 18, more than two decades earlier. He says Bishop Vangheluwe could not remain in office and the case must be reported to the church hierarchy.
According to the translation by Reuters, Danneels asks him: “What do you really want?”, cutting the victim off by saying he already knows the story and doesn’t need to hear it again. When the man says, “I give you the responsibility, I can’t decide … you should do what you think should be done, because I don’t know how this whole system works.”
“Do you want this to be made public?” the cardinal asks. “I leave that to you,” the victim responds. Then Danneels begins his effort to convince him to keep the lid on the problem: “The bishop will step down next year, so actually it would be better for you to wait.”
“No, I can’t agree that he takes his leave in glory, I can’t do that,” the victim replies.
According to Tom Heneghan of Reuters:
At one point, Danneels ducks and weaves trying to fend off the victim’s pleas to inform the Church hierarchy about Vangheluwe’s misdeeds. He says he has no authority over the bishop, only the pope does. When the victim suggests Danneels arrange a meeting with the pope, the cardinal gives the flip reply: “The pope isn’t that easy to reach.” A little later, he says: “I don’t think you’d do yourself or him a favor by shouting this from the rooftops.”
At another point, Danneels suggests the victim admit his guilt and ask for forgiveness. “Who do I have to ask forgiveness from?” the surprised man asks. When the cardinal remarks that going public would put the bishop in a quandry, the victim replies: “I’ve been living my whole life in a quandry … I was brought up Catholic. I see the institution is wavering, I read the newspapers and so I think I have a duty to do this. How can I get my children to believe something that has such a background? I can’t. That’s just always shoving it onto the next generation. And everything stays the same. That’s not what the Church is for.”
When Danneels suggests the victim may be trying to blackmail the Church, the man pleads with him to take up this case, saying there has to be someone in the Church who can handle it because he cannot bring himself to expose his uncle on his own. “We were forced to get married by him, our children were baptised by him, how can I explain this to them?” he asked. “Yesterday I said to my oldest son, look, this is what happened to me. They must know what has happened.”
The exchange goes on with Danneels repeatedly arguing he has no power to do anything and that the whole story would come out if Vangheluwe were forced to resign. That’s when the victim asked: “Why do you feel so sorry for him and not for me? … You’re always trying to defend him. I thought I was going to get some support, but I have to sit here and defend myself against things I can’t do anything about.”
The Associated Press is now running a report that Cardinal Danneels deeply regrets the meeting ("he realizes that the whole approach, as it was, was not the right one," says his spokesman) and that he was unprepared for the meeting, which Bishop Vangheluwe had talked him into holding. According to the spokesman -- boy, I don't envy him -- the transcript was "in no way" in doubt, but was not complete enough to give a more nuanced idea of the meeting. "It is not correct to say that Danneels implied — let's give forgiveness and that's it," Toon Osaer said.
Meanwhile Zenit carries a fuller statement by Osaer:
"The cardinal agreed to a request of the family to be mediator in the family circle immediately after the abuse. In this confidential context of a family meeting, different solutions were examined with a view to a resolution ... At no time was pressure exerted on the family or the victim to keep the event secret or to prevent their appealing to justice or to the Adriaenssens Commission." The commission was established by the Catholic Church to investigate allegations of sexual abuse committed by clerics. In the statement, Cardinal Danneels repeated that "he condemns the abuse committed by the former bishop and that he deplores it profoundly."
"He also expresses his disappointment over the fact that a confidential conversation was recorded and published, without advising the parties present," it added. The spokesman noted: "The fact that he did not make the talks of this meeting public in a preceding press conference is due to the fact that he did not want to break the confidential character of the meeting. It was also due to the respect owed to the victim, who had not been made known publicly and who had not yet revealed what he had experienced."
It is also reported that Bishop Vangheluwe's resignation was prompted by a friend of the nephew emailing the Belgian bishops to threaten going public. The reason for the nephew deciding to leak the transcript was in response to reports that he had taken hush money.
There is, at the heart of this, the sad story of a bishop who faces up to the abuse he committed and who spends 20 years trying to make up for his sin, as he tells the nephew in a subsequent interview, also recorded and leaked. And there is the abuse victim unable to forgive him. ("This is unsolvable,” the nephew tells his uncle. “You’ve torn our family completely apart.”) That exchange throws light on what Bishop Vangheluwe said when he resigned: that he had asked the victim and his family to forgive him but the wound had not healed, “neither in me nor the victim.”
This was abuse not just of a young man by a priest, but within a family -- which is where most abuse occurs. At a human level, it is understandable -- as so often in these cases -- that those involved will try to seek resolution and healing within the family; and it is therefore understandable, humanly speaking, that Cardinal Danneels would have acquiesced to the bishop's pleas to assist that process by meeting the victim -- especially if, as the spokesman suggests, this was at the request not just of the bishop but of his family.
But what also emerges from this story is the extraordinary lack of awareness of the wider context of the abuse scandal. When Cardinal Danneels met the victim, the Pope had just sent the Irish Church a profound apology for covering up abuse, and the cover-up scandal was exploding across central Europe. The single, devastating charge levelled at the Church was that it sought to put its own interests before those of victims, refusing them legal redress to avoid scandal. And here is a victim demanding justice -- not necessarily wanting to go to the police, but asking the Church itself to right the wrong; and being refused.
It is easy to condemn the two Belgian bishops: what on earth were they thinking? But there are things we do not know. Perhaps Bishop Vangheluwe -- obviously a penitent man, who looks back on the abuse he perpetrated with deep shame and horror -- believed that his nephew needed, for his own good, to learn to forgive; perhaps he feared the devastating impact the revelations would have on other members of his family. Perhaps, in other words, he wasn't simply trying to silence the victim in order to protect the Church, nor in his own interests, but was acting as his conscience told him to -- to try to bring about healing in the only way he believed healing could come about, for the good of all.
I am surprised to find myself -- now that I write about this sad, sad case -- more compassionate than indignant. It is obvious, on one level, that the two bishops acted wrongly; but another, it is not so clear. Perhaps this is the kind of situation best dealt with in a novel, which can lay bare the different levels of moral choice, than in journalism. If so, the novel could only have one ending -- that of tragedy for all concerned.
And the novel's deeper lesson could be this: forgiveness cannot be a substitute for justice unless the victim accepts it as such.