As the Belgian Church faces yet another meltdown, its leader explains himself

The Belgian Archbishop who has been under fire for making controversial comments has said he is sorry for the hurt he has caused, and that while his statements may surprise some, he never intended to shock.

Archbishop Andre-Joseph of Brussels-Mechelen replied to accusations of insensitivity and homophobia in a four page statement published on the RTBF website yesterday. The Belgian Church was in a meltdown in the wake of Monday’s public resignation of the bishops’ conference spokesman Juergen Mettepenningen, following a press conference in which he was highly critical of his former employer whom he described as a “driver who refused to follow the directions given by the GPS”.

The archbishop, who is known for his blunt and sometimes caustic style, even by those who admire him, was accused of saying that HIV/Aids was form of divine punishment, calling homosexuality a-normal and an illness, and of wanting aged and infirm paedophile priests to be spared from justice.

A group of academics from the Catholic University of Louvain , lead by Fr Gabriel Ringlet, a Belgian poet and theologian who was dismayed by the archbishop’s appointment in January, have called for Archbishop Leonard’s resignation.

In his statement, Archbishop Leonard clarified his controversial comments, claiming that he had been misrepresented by the press. He said that he felt he “owed this explanation to those whom I have involuntarily made suffer on being the source of so much criticism, misunderstanding and incomprehension. I hope in this way to contribute to peace in [people’s] hearts. In the meantime, who knows which new polemique [may arise]…which I absolutely do not seek. I am, of course, conscious to say what I think in conscience to be the truth. This can surprise sometimes, but my goal is never to shock.

Archbishop Léonard said he too would react strongly to the comments he is supposed to have made “such as they have been presented to you”.

A tall, thin man appointed to lead a troubled Church at the beginning of this year, Archbishop Léonard first addressed himself to the suggestion that he had said HIV/Aids was divine punishment. The reports arose from the publication, earlier this autumn, of a book of interviews first published in French in 2004, in which the Archbishop answered a question on whether he believed that the Aids epidemic was a divine punishment for the sexual revolution.

He said: “Although the interviewer might have been happy (I know nothing of it) that I say that Aids was a divine punishment (the more a remark is shocking, the better papers sell), I began by underlining that I did not reason in any way in those terms and I did not consider, in any way, the spread of Aids as a heavenly punishment. But as the journalist appeared to be taken, by the very nature of his question, by this category of ‘punishment’, I added that ‘it was possible’ one ‘might eventually’ consider the first spread of the illness as a “sort” of ‘immanent justice’. Three precautions, therefore, (the expressions in quotation marks), to introduce the classical concept of ‘immanent justice’”

Explaining what he meant by immanent justice which he described as the result of the inherent nature of the action, Archbishop Léonard said: “I therefore do not really see why it is unseemly to say that our polluting risks giving a nasty turn to the ecological plan, or that the immoderate consumption of alcohol can damage our brain or our liver or to consider that the contamination by HIV was linked, from its beginnings, in part, to risky sexual behaviours.

He said he normally avoided the “neuralgic issues (questions on women’s ordination, priestly celibacy, sexual morality and bioethics)”.
Archbishop Léonard denied he had suggested that homosexuality was an illness or a-normal and said he would not use that language.
On the question on whether infirm and elderly paedophile priests should be spared justice, Archbishop Léonard says that he believed that all the cases should be turned over to the civil authorities and that the Church now urged victims to report directly to the civil authorities.

The archbishop said he had been thinking about number of cases he has dealt with recently in which he met victims of abuse who begged him not to go to the civil authorities. He said the victims had asked him to find the old priests who had abused them and get them to recognise the grave harm they had done by those who had abused them. The archbishop said he then arranged a meeting between the priest and the victims in which the priest apologised for the harm he had done.

Despite being seen as a controversial figure, the Belgian prelate has developed a reputation for being hard-hitting where sexual abuse is concerned after he reacted quickly when abuse allegations first started emerging. But the Belgian Church has suffered an annus horribilis after a senior bishop and good friend of Archbishop Léonard’s predecessor, Bishop Roger Vangheluwe resigned when it emerged that he had abused his nephew. The Archdiocese was subjected to a police raid in July where the tombs of two cardinals were broken into and the bishops were held in custody for a whole day. Archbishop Léonard’s predecessor Cardinal Gottfried Danneels was implicated in alleged cover-up attempts after tapes emerged of a meeting between the cardinal, Vangheluwe and the abused nephew, in which the cardinal showed little compassion for the victim.

Heads turned last week at the surprise announcement that the leader of the Church in Belgium would be silent until after Christmas.

We’re in a very serious crisis and the last thing we need is more commotion,” said: Dr Mettepenningen, the spokesman for the Belgian bishops’ conference.

“I’ve agreed with Archbishop Léonard that there should now be as much radio silence as possible until Christmas,” he said.

Had the moratorium on speaking to the press been his idea or was it his spokesman doing some damage control?

Those who doubted that the affairs of the Catholic Church would keep off the airwaves for long, were vindicated yesterday when Mettepenningen resigned with an outburst of rage against the Archbishop.

Having insisted that the last thing the bishops needed was more commotion only a few days earlier, Mettepenningen unleashed his fury in a two-page press release and a massive press conference at the Norbertine Abbey of Grimbergen.

He cited three main reasons for his resignation: a crisis of confidence, a crisis of leadership and a crises of choices and judgement. He described his boss as a man who was driving a car down a one-way street, a driver who ignored the directions his GPS was giving him.

Dr Mettepenningen is also a member of the theology faculty at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. His field is sytematic theology.