Gunning for Godfried? Belgian abuse probe asks what Danneels knew

June 29, 2010

standaardAre the Belgian judicial authorities gunning for Godfried? It looks like Cardinal Godfried Danneels, the popular grandfatherly Catholic prelate who stepped down in January as archbishop of Brussels-Mechelen after three decades, is the main target of the incredible “tomb raider” sweeps that shocked the Church last Thursday. The police who swooped down on the diocesan headquarters in Mechelen, Danneels’s own apartment nearby and the offices of the Church commission on abuse in Leuven did not suspect the cardinal of abuse himself. But it seems the investigating magistrate behind the raid is convinced that Danneels hushed up cases during his long reign.

The media seem to be too — just take a look at last Saturday’s front page of the Brussels daily De Standaard at the right.

There may be something there. Let’s see what the investigators come up with.

Does the magistrate actually think Danneels also crept down to the crypt at St. Rumbold’s Cathedral in Mechelen one night and stashed incriminating files in the tombs of his predecessors?  Now we’re in Da Vinci Code territory. This would be laughable if it weren’t a sign of the Marc Dutroux cloud that hangs over any case like this in Belgium. The Belgian police suspected Dutroux of kidnapping girls in the 1990s and actually inspected his house and missed the dungeon for the girls in the basement. There were huge protests against police incompetence when this came out. Dutroux was arrested and convicted of the murder of four girls. So the police are going to be extra tough and thorough to make sure they don’t bungle it again.

The change in tone about Danneels is striking and dates to the April resignation of Bruges Bishop Roger Vangheluwe after admitting he had abused his own nephew. Danneels said at the time that he first learned of Vangheluwe’s transgressions only days before they became public, a fact that has been challenged by a Brussels priest, Rik Devillé. In the eight weeks since that shock, 475 people contacted the Church commission on sexual abuse to report their cases. Only 30 cases had been registered with the commission in the previous 10 years and none or almost none with the police. This is a sea change.

mechelen policeThat so much information was flowing into the Church commission and so little of it getting out to the judicial authorities seems to have been the trigger for the investigating magistrate following abuse cases to take action. Justice Minister Stefaan De Clerck accused the commission of dragging its feet.

(Photo: Police outside the archbishop’s office in Mechelen on 24 June 2010/Eric Vidal)

The commission head, Peter Adriaenssens, said it had planned to draw up an initial report on its cases in October. One of the things he had on his agenda was a meeting with Danneels on July 5 to discuss his role. According to Adriaenssens, the cardinal’s name came up in about 50 dossiers, not as an abuser, but as someone who knew what was happening.

We’ll never know what that report would have said because that panel disbanded on Monday because all its working material — its files and computer — were now in police hands.  It’s also hard to say whether Danneels would have gotten an easier ride with the commission than he will with the judicial authorities, who seem bound to question him at some point in the near future. He can’t be forced to resign in disgrace, because he’s already stepped down from his archbishop’s post and cardinal is a title rather than a job. But his name could be dragged through a lot of mud — rightly or wrongly — before this saga is over.

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