Belgium's senior Roman Catholic cleric, Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard, has been ordered to pay 10,000 euros ($10,900) in damages for failing to act on allegations of sexual abuse in the 1990s.
The civil case was brought by Joel Devillet, who was abused by a priest while he was a choirboy in the south of Belgium in the late 1980s, when he was 14 years old.
Devillet later studied to become a priest himself and informed the Church of his earlier experience of abuse, but it did little to help him and did not alert justice authorities, an appeals court in Liege said on Thursday.
"At no moment at the church court was Joel Devillet recognized as a victim," the court said in its judgment, adding that Leonard, in his capacity as bishop of Namur in the 1990s, bore some blame.
"The way in which Bishop Leonard treated the case of Joel Devillet constituted misconduct," the court said.
Leonard has been criticized before for saying it is vengeful to prosecute retired priests, and that the Church need not compensate victims.
A report in 2010 found child abuse was widespread in the Belgian Church, and had driven at least 13 victims to suicide.
The Church's highest profile case came to light in 2010, when the bishop of Bruges resigned after admitting he had sexually abused a nephew.
Belgian bishop: Ruling against archbishop could spur claims for damages
OXFORD, England (CNS) — A Belgian bishop said the president of the bishops’ conference urged Catholics to respect a court judgment against him for failing to act on allegations of abuse.
However, Auxiliary Bishop Jean Kockerols of Mechelen-Brussels also said the ruling provoked concern that it could spur more claims for damages, and he said it would take a while for the church to regain credibility.
“Our church set up a special commission to investigate such cases, which will soon complete its work,” Bishop Kockerols told Catholic News Service, adding that he believed the Belgian church’s procedures for combating abuse were now robust.
“After the damage we’ve suffered from these cases, it’ll take us 10-20 years to regain our credibility as a church. What’s important in the meantime is that we’re not intimidated into silence. When you’re walking a tightrope, your best chance of finding a balance is to keep moving forward,” he said.
The Appeal Court in Liege ruled against Archbishop Andre Leonard of Mechelen-Brussels, conference president, in a case dating to when he was bishop of Namur, 1991-2010. The court said the archbishop was guilty of misconduct and ordered him to pay $11,000 to a former Catholic seminarian, Joel Devillet, who was sexually abused as a choirboy in Aubange by a Catholic abbot, Father Gilbert Hubermont.
Devillet, now 42, took his case to the Appeal Court after a previous damages claim against the archbishop was rejected by a Namur court in 2013.
Belgium’s Catholic Church has been dogged by abuse allegations since 2010, alongside parallel claims against the clergy in other European countries. In a 2010 pastoral letter, the bishops’ conference asked forgiveness from victims, after Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of Bruges resigned following an admission he had molested his nephew.
Meanwhile, Philippe Malherbe, lawyer for Archbishop Leonard, said April 27 he believed the case against his client was “juridically fragile,” adding that an appeal was being considered.
On May 6, Archbishop Leonard turns 75 and, under canon law, must offer his resignation to Pope Francis.
The case against Archbishop Leonard follows the April 21 resignation of Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, following a court ruling that he failed to report suspected child.