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Belgian bishop declines cardinal honor over abuse record


ROME (AP) — One of Pope Francis’ proposed new cardinals, the retired bishop of Ghent, Belgium, has bowed out of accepting the honor over his insufficient response to cases of clergy sexual abuse, the Belgian bishops conference said.

Ghent Bishop Luc Van Looy had asked Francis for permission to decline the honor in order “to not harm victims again,” and Francis accepted the request, the bishops said in a statement.

Francis had named Van Looy as one of 21 prelates to become a new “prince of the church” during a consistory Aug. 27. At 80, Van Looy is too old to participate in a future conclave to elect the next pope, but he was one of five men named as cardinals in recognition of their lifetime of service to the church.

Van Looy, a priest of the Salesian religious order, had been bishop of the northwest Belgian diocese from 2004-2020.

The Belgian bishops conference said the announcement that he would be made a cardinal had “generated a lot of positive reaction but also criticism of the fact that he didn’t always react with sufficient energy as bishop of Ghent against abuse in his pastoral work.”

The conference said it appreciated Van Looy’s decision to decline the honor and reiterated its commitment to fighting abuse in the church and placing the interests of victims first.

The Belgian Catholic Church has had a wretched record with abuse and cover-up: In 2010 the Belgian church acknowledged more than 500 cases of abuse dating from the 1950s after it commissioned a report that found at least 13 victims committed suicide.

That same year, police raided church offices and the archbishop of Bruges resigned after admitting he had sexually abused his nephew for years while a priest and bishop. The Bruges scandal also tarnished the then-head of the Belgian church, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, who was recorded urging the bishop’s’ victim to stay quiet.

The Salesian of Don Bosco religious order, which specializes in running schools, also has a poor abuse record with at least 45 priests in the United States alone named on its list of credibly accused priests. The Belgian Salesians were involved in a scandal in which one of their priests was sent to the Central African Republic to run the Vatican’s Caritas charity after he was convicted of abuse by a Ghent court.

Cardinals are the prime advisers to the pope and, for those under age 80, their main job involves coming to Rome in the event of a papal death or resignation to participate in the secret balloting to elect a new pope.

It is highly unusual for a proposed cardinal to decline the nomination, especially one over age 80, since the red hat is a purely ceremonial honor. There have been a few cases in which popes have named cardinals “in pectore,” meaning the nomination is not made public, usually to protect the man if he lives in a place where Catholics are persecuted.

Only a few cardinals have had their rights and privileges rescinded or restricted after they were named, including the late Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who was accused of sexual misconduct with seminarians and priests; and Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who is currently on trial in the Vatican on alleged financial improprieties that he denies.

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