Spokesman for embattled Belgian archbishop quits, cites loss of trust

November 2, 2010

mettepenningen2The spokesman for Belgium’s Roman Catholic leader quit on Tuesday, citing a loss of trust in the archbishop who has caused a storm with harsh comments on AIDS and caring words for some paedophile priests.

Jürgen Mettepenningen, a theologian who became Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard’s spokesman in August, announced his decision only days after the prelate agreed to stop speaking in public until Christmas to calm the storm engulfing the Church.

(Image: Jürgen Mettepenningen, 2 Nov 2010/screengrab RTL video)

His resignation reflected growing criticism of Léonard within his own church, where bishops have cautiously spoken out against their leader and lay Catholics are turning increasingly caustic. Politicians have also stepped up criticism of him. It also highlighted the damage that scandals of clerical sex abuse of minors have done to the Church in Europe, especially in Belgium and Ireland where bishops reacted in defensive ways that further angered Catholics and public officials.

“I no longer want, can and will act as spokesman for Archbishop Leonard,” said Mettepenningen, 35,  in a statement announcing his immediate resignation.

“Archbishop Léonard has sometimes acted like someone who’s driving against the traffic and thinks everyone else is wrong,” he later told journalists (see full statement in French here). “For three months, I was his GPS but the driver holds the steering wheel and decides which way to go. All too often, I had to indicte that the route should be recalculated. But if the driver continues on his way, if he is blind to the accidents caused, then the GPS doesn’t have to wait to be dismissed. It should withdraw by itself because its function has become superfluous.”

leonard 1(Photo: Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, October 15, 2010/Thierry Roge)

“Archbishop Léonard does not take his leadership duties seriously,” Mettepenningen added. “But it is above all his surrealist attitude regarding the turmoil stirred up by his remarks that I take too seriously to still support this.”

Léonard, an abrasive outspoken conservative, broke his vow of silence on Monday to defend a comment from last week that prosecuting retired priests on charges of sexual abuse of minors was “a kind of vengeance” on men no longer in pastoral work. In an earlier comment that also triggered an uproar, he called AIDS “immanent justice” for promiscuous behaviour.

The Belgian Church has been reeling since Bruges Bishop Roger Vangheluwe quit in April after confessing to abusing his own nephew sexually for many years and Leonard’s predecessor, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, admitted to making mistakes in handling abuse cases. Almost 600 alleged cases of past abuse have been registered since then. The scandals have prompted some bishops to ask whether the Church should reconsider its mandatory celibacy rule.

Losing patience with the bishops’ inability to deal with the abuse crisis, the lower house of parliament decided on Thursday to set up a special commission to investigate the scandals.  Léonard’s comment on paedophile priests prompted Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp to say he “had a problem” with it and to insist that the archbishop spoke only for himself. Léonard is the Catholic primate of Belgium and president of the bishops conference.

The Interdiocesan Pastoral Council (IPB), an association of lay Catholic groups in traditionally Catholic Flanders, denounced Léonard as being out of touch with his own Church.  “Leonard doesn’t listen to the feelings of the faithful,” IPB chairwoman Josian Caproens wrote. “Many inside and outside the Church are very annoyed by his haughty attitude.”

rompuyEuropean Union President Herman Van Rompuy, a practising Catholic, has also weighed into the crisis in his home Church. He told the Brussels daily Le Soir that he was “shocked, disgusted and angered” by the scandals. “The Church is ready for a reformation,” he said. “The real problem is that there isn’t any democracy at all in the Church.”

(Photo: Herman van Rompuy in Brussels October 29, 2010/Thierry Roge)

Belgian media reported that Léonard planned to write an open letter to all priests in his archdiocese to explain his controversial recent remarks.

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As a Catholic physician, I agree with the EU President that the Roman Catholic Church is ready for, and desperately in need of, reformation.

The Pope and hierarchy can no longer be allowed to be above the law.

I am impressed to read in this article that the lower house of parliament is setting up a special commission to investigate the scandals. I understand that there have been at least 13 suicides in Belgium by victims of priest sex abuse! This is tragic!

Since Pope Benedict and many in the hierarchy have been complicit in the scandal, in what I have read, it may be that the only way to make them accountable would be for the piece of land (1.2 acres) called the Vatican to lose its claim to statehood, and for the Pope to lose his immunity from prosecution.

In this way, all the secret records can be reviewed, crimes can be investigated, abusers can be put in jail and removed from the priesthood, and healing of the victims can begin.

In conclusion, I think there needs to be some form of democracy in the RCC, so that the voices of all of the faithful are listened to by the leaders. Right now, the only voices heard are those of the celibate men in the Vatican and they do not reflect the attitude or message of Jesus to me.

Thankyou for your fine reporting.

Sincerely, Rosemary Eileen McHugh, M.D., Illinois, USA

Posted by Physician | Report as abusive

A bit like Alice in Wonderland. The big surprise here is that there remains one Catholic with scruples. Who knew?

Posted by estheimer | Report as abusive

Submitted to the New York Times

Clericalism has often been described as the pursuit of ecclesiastical power at the expense of the laity. It is viewed as an elite caste unaccountable to the People of God.

It is this mindset peculiar to bishops and priests that renders otherwise ordinary good men so insensitive to the moral depravity present in some of their fellows that they will go to any lengths to enable, protect and cover up for them even years after the fact and in the case of ordinary priests renders them incapable of challenging Church leadership in the face of such evil.

Failing to protect the innocent from childhood sexual abuse all those decades ago and enabling further abuse by becoming complicit in covering up for perpetrators makes one wonder whether or not church leaders believe the words of Jesus in the Gospel.

Or is it rather that some do not consider Jesus’ words binding if following the words of the Lord embarrass one, causing him to lose statute and authority in the church? Is it a choice between arresting one’s advancement in this highly clericalized system and speaking truth to power?

Is it for all of these reasons and more?

This latest example of the abuse of power and authority in the Roman Catholic Church by Cardinal Godfried Danneels, the former leader of the Belgian Church, puts the lie to statements made not so many years ago by members of the hierarchy that the sexual abuse of children by clergymen was uniquely an American phenomenon.

Probably not the half of what has been going on in the Belgian Church is really known at this time. This in a country that is approximately the size of the state of Maryland in square miles.

Here in the United States previously sealed depositions that church authorities never expected to be made public support the fact that attempts at containment know no national boundaries.

Crimes against humanity?

No question.

As such they should be brought before the world court. After all, the Holy See is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child even though it has submitted none of the periodic compliance reports beyond the initial one.

Will the institutional Church take ownership for the complicity of its leadership in covering up for the actions of those who have preyed on the young and their own actions in putting so many more children in harm’s way?


To date, have any complicit bishops in the U.S. been sanctioned for their actions?

Rewarded? Yes.

Sanctioned? No.

The crisis continues worldwide while in the U.S. bishops and state Catholic Conferences continue to viciously oppose legislative reform in any state where bills addressing it have been introduced. New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland and Colorado are but a few examples.

Certainly not what one expected when the bishops promised Accountability & Transparency in 2002.

Can the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church be blind to the fact that its actions in continuing on its present course are speeding up an already unprecedented erosion of credibility among the ordinary faithful who want to cling to the belief that church leadership is capable of telling the truth and being accountable for its failures in protecting children?

Is it not this hubris of leadership, this horrific abuse of power that has created the rough seas, that perfect storm in which the Barque of Peter now finds itself floundering?

Or did Jesus’ words mandating the protection of children, the most vulnerable among us, include the caveat that his words were binding only if in protecting the children the cost was not too high?

Sister Maureen Paul Turlish
Victims’ Advocate
New Castle, Delaware, USA

Posted by SMPTURLISH | Report as abusive

It seems most Catholics agree that their hierarchy has comprehensively failed them and society.

Whilst the finger can be pointed towards them for the the establishment and the operation of the cover up there remains the issue of repair and restoration of the survivors.

What actions are the laity, the priesthood, nuns and other religious undertaking in that area?

Until some area of the church begins the task of restoring and righting the injustices experienced by the victims the word ‘hubris’ must also be extended to apply to the laity, the priesthood, nuns and other religious of the Catholic church as their words of anger and disgust become meaningless without undertaking the actions they accuse the hierarchy of.

Posted by JohnBS1 | Report as abusive

The Catholic Church is responsible not only for the torture of these innocent victims, but through the ages it has been responsible for the slaughter of millions! From the beginning there has been the sexual abuse of children, Popes and bishops have had wives and mistresses and children.
There were the crusades, the Inquisistion, The concordant with Hitler so that the church is just as responsible as Hitler for the slaughter of the Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses,
Gypsy’s, and anyone else that Hitler felt like slaughtering.
And they try to cover up everything they do. or put a different light on it. But we do not have to worry soon God will destroy her as Part of Babylon the Great. So her sins will be exposed and taken care of. Revelation 18:2-8.

Posted by pearblossom | Report as abusive

[…] Archbishop Andre-Joseph Léonard receives a chocolate-looking pie at Mass on All Saints Day. In the face. The next day, the prelate’s spokesman resigned. […]

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