BRUSSELS The former head of Belgium's Roman Catholic Church has admitted he made mistakes in dealing with a case of sexual abuse and should have demanded the resignation of the bishop involved.
In interviews published in newspapers Het Laatste Nieuws and La Libre Belgique and the weekly magazine Knack Wednesday, Cardinal Godfried Danneels described his failure to urge the bishop to go as his "most serious error of judgement."
Bishop Roger Vangheluwe resigned at the end of April after admitting he had sexually abused a nephew while running the diocese of Bruges, the first such known case of high-level abuse in the Catholic church in Belgium.
However, Danneels suggested to the victim during a meeting earlier in April that it would be better to keep quiet, with the bishop due to retire in 2011, according to transcripts of the meeting published last month.
Danneels, whose lawyer has said publication of the transcripts was a character assassination, recounted how he had learnt of the abuse from Vangheluwe at the start of April.
The meeting on April 8 with Vangheluwe and the victim had been suddenly sprung upon him by the bishop, Danneels said. When he sought to postpone it, he was told the family, including the victim, were already on their way.
"Up until today I have the feeling that I had stepped into a trap. Call it naivete. You can make all sorts of assumptions about the intentions of Roger Vangheluwe. But the error of assessment was mine," Danneels said.
Danneels said he had tried to establish why the family had kept quiet for almost 25 years and had never been to the police, and he denied mentioning the bishop's impending retirement to influence the relatives.
"I never wanted to suggest that it should not be made public," Danneels said.
Danneels, who retired in January and has been questioned as a witness in an investigation into sexual abuse by the Church in Belgium, said he became aware the problem was big only when the first cases emerged in the United States, the Netherlands and Germany.
"We knew of a few cases. But the stream of reactions that came in ... after Vangheluwe's resignation made the scale of the problem clear, also for me," Danneels said.
Police raided church offices, Danneels's home and even looked into a tomb in June to find evidence of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. Prosecutors believe the seizure of files and computers may be illegal, Belgian media have reported, meaning that the documents may not be able to be used.
A Belgian court is expected to rule on the issue on Thursday.
(Writing by Philip Blenkinsop; editing by David Stamp)