Abuse in the Church

Abuse in the Catholic Church

This is a particularly important file for Van Steenbrugge Advocaten. One that we keep fighting for. We stand up for those who are left out in the cold against a huge and powerful establishment. Our office assists victims in the criminal investigation that is ongoing in Brussels, the so-called Kelk file. We group a large number of victims who summoned the Holy See and the Belgian bishops before the court of Ghent. And we provide assistance to victims in the mediation procedure before the Sexual Abuse Arbitration Center in Brussels.

Or as Christine Mussche put it on Radio 1 at Friedl Lesage: “When someone deliberately and repeatedly causes damage to what we all hold dearest, namely children, then you know that there must also be legal consequences. Even if it is a battle of David against Goliath. Our legal system must be able to deliver justice and place the responsibility on those who bear and bear the responsibility. We have never lacked courage here.”

You can also still register to participate in the proceedings conducted by our office against the Holy See, the Belgian bishops and the Major Superiors.

Operation Kelk

Operation Kelk started in June 2010 with searches at the Archdiocese in Mechelen, St. Rumbold's Cathedral, the private residence of Cardinal Danneels, the then committee on child abuse in the Church led by child psychiatrist Peter Adriaenssens and the State Archives.

In the fall of 2014, that judicial investigation into sexual abuse and culpable omissions within the Catholic Church was closed. It is still waiting for a judgment from the indictment chamber that must decide whether the investigation could still legally be continued after a number of official reports had disappeared.

Our office opposed the annulment of the seized documents by the Chamber of Indictment (KIB) in Brussels. We wanted to see the established right to be heard as a victim respected, among other things by drafting detailed written pleadings in cassation. In its judgment, the Court of Cassation stated that the decision of the KIB – which was ultimately taken without consulting the victims – was broken, after which the case was referred to the KIB in a different composition. On November 29, 2010, the case was heard by that newly formed KIB.

The judgment of 22 December ruled that the searches and seizures of the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels and Cardinal Danneels were indeed valid. The seized information thus remained part of the file. On the contrary, the searches at the Adriaenssens Committee were not found to be valid, and according to the KIB all seized files had to be returned (to the victims).

In addition, our office defended the interests of the victims in the challenge on behalf of the Catholic Church and former Cardinal Danneels against investigating judge De Troy. The Court of Appeal in Brussels rejected the challenge and De Troy continued to lead the judicial investigation. However, because a challenge request was still pending, he was unable to take immediate action.

Het Laatste Nieuws outlines the complete course of Operation Kelk here.

On October 8, 2012, De Standaard wrote on the front page: “Bishops don't keep promises”. Renaat Landuyt (S.PA), at that time a member of the sexual abuse follow-up committee, sees that the proposed settlement goes against the spirit and letter of the law. From the article: “The victim must agree to a “commitment of confidentiality”. “He is no longer allowed to talk about the facts. But that is not acknowledging the victims, but again ignoring them," says Landuyt. Those who sign the settlement also agree not to pursue any other proceedings against any relevant body of the Catholic Church.” That refers to the "guilty omission", says Landuyt, and implies that victims of sexual abuse who have united in the class action of lawyer Walter Van Steenbrugge against the Church Institute must withdraw from it."

Further in the newspaper that day there is a more extensive analysis, “Another bumbling about compensation for Church”, and Roel Verschueren raises the alarm bell in an opinion piece about the operation of the arbitration committee: “Linda, or the Agony After Sexual Abuse in the Church”.

Roel Verschueren also bundled an online bibliography on abuse in the Church.

You can also here read another interview with mr. Mussche from the weekly magazine HUMO.

Press conference on the summons of the Holy See and the Belgian Bishops

On June 1, 2011, at 3.30 pm, victims of child abuse in the Church explained the summons of the Holy See and the Belgian Bishops. Shortly before that, we had decided to initiate the class action (claas-action) at the Court of First Instance in Ghent. The assembled press was invited to Kunstencentrum Vooruit.

At that time, our aim was, in a first phase, to have the principle of liability on the part of the Holy See, the Belgian Bishops and the Major Superiors established by the court in an interlocutory judgment, in which the court would also be asked to express itself. talk about provisional compensation for damage suffered (ex aequo et bono).

A summary of the summons can be found here.

Judgment of the Court of Cassation on April 3, 2012

In the spring of 2012, our office succeeded for the second time in overturning a decision against the victims of sexual abuse in the Church by the Court of Cassation. Our explanation then looked like this:

By judgment of 03.04.2012, the Court of Cassation overturned the judgment of the Chamber of Indictment (KIB) of Brussels of 29.11.2011 in so far as it had decided that documents seized from Cardinal Danneels and from the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels from the file and to the extent that it had decided to annul all investigative acts resulting from those searches. That decision of the KIB was prompted by the finding that the investigating judge, who was never heard about this, would have had insufficient indications to decide on the searches. In concrete terms, this means that the case must again be submitted to a (differently composed) KIB. That KIB then only has to decide whether, as a result of the lack of evidence for those searches, certain documents that were seized during those searches should be removed from the criminal file. The Court of Cassation specifies that this could only be decided if it is established that there has been a violation of the right to a fair trial. However, such a violation is only rarely assumed, because it is settled case-law that the fairness of the trial must be assessed on the basis of the entire procedure. As a result, any imperfection in the preliminary investigation can be perfectly rectified at a later stage and only irrevocable violations of the right to a fair trial (for example, when a confession was obtained through torture) lead to exclusion of evidence. However, that is not the case here at all. The case law also has many examples where the results of invalid searches may nevertheless be used as evidence. Moreover, it is now also definitively established that all investigative acts that were carried out after the relevant house searches are perfectly valid and that the results thereof may not be removed from the criminal file. That too is, of course, an important finding. Of course, our office will continue to work undiminished to safeguard the interests of the victims.

Guilty default in America

Bishop William J. Lynn, the former right-hand man of Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, was found guilty of endangering children in Philadelphia on Friday, June 22, 2012, officially becoming the first representative of the Catholic Church in the United States to be convicted. for concealing sexual abuse by priests for which he was responsible. He risked 3.5 to 7 years in prison.

The American case set a useful precedent for our case, and essentially gave a positive ruling on the legal question that we also submitted to the Belgian courts.

Journalist Roel Verschueren wrote under the title "Negligent" a nice opinion article on the case.

You find all about the american cause itself on BishopAccountability.org website.

Press release: correct information

On May 21, 2013, our office sent a lengthy statement to the press, out of concern for incorrect or incomplete communication.

to whom it belongs

Our clients are under the impression that after this morning's hearing, there may be misunderstanding and confusion about their claim due to unclear communication from some spokespersons for Catholic Church leaders.

That is why our clients like to emphasize their statement below:

The proceedings in Ghent were instituted on the basis of the doctrine of tort, whereby an error that has caused damage gives rise to a civil conviction.

More specifically, a lack of diligence in the policies of the ecclesiastical leaders, who acted from the Holy See and from various dioceses, has been denounced.

The victims of sexual abuse accuse church leaders of "incestuous passivity" (quoting Professor Adriaenssens).

Explained further, Church leaders had known for decades of serious sexual abuse committed by clergy against minors and failed to provide assistance.

On the contrary, they gave "secret" instructions to keep everything "secret" and to leave such matters to the ecclesiastical authorities.

In doing so, the Church's own interest was placed above that of the victims, and the abuse was concealed from the judicial authorities, who were never informed in any case.

The ecclesiastical authorities have failed in their duty to deal with persons who asked for assistance with care and bear a crushing responsibility in this regard.

These errors on the part of the ecclesiastical leaders have already been proven by the documents sent in large numbers to the courts by the victims, also by the report of the former Adriaenssens Commission, and by the report of the Special Parliamentary Commission and not in least by its own pastoral letter of 19.05.2010.

In addition, the victims request that, at a later stage of the current procedure, the documents that are the subject of the judicial criminal investigation in Brussels can also be added as evidence. This can be done by suspending the procedure.

Moreover, the lack of action against the perpetrators of sexual abuse facilitated new sexual abuse.

This clearly concerns other damage than that resulting from the sexual offenses themselves.

For these shortcomings, and for this manifestly careless policy, the victims seek redress before the civil court, and must have access to justice at all times in accordance with Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

They wish to complete the procedure in two phases in which initially a number of people, stating their identity, and a number of people who wish to preserve their anonymity, want an opinion on the following question of guilt: have the responsible church leaders failed in their duty? to handle their knowledge of sexual abuse committed against minors by clergy with care? Have they provided the necessary assistance to victims of sexual abuse, and have they taken the necessary steps to prevent further abuse?

In a second phase, the victims ask that anonymous persons can also make themselves known with their file, and this behind closed doors, in order to further demonstrate their specific individual damage.

With this procedure, the rights of defense on the part of the ecclesiastical leaders are never affected, and everyone can perfectly defend themselves about the object of the claim, especially the failing policy on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities.

Not admitting victims to court would not only be a violation of art. 6 ECHR, but would also imply that ecclesiastical leaders are above the law and that violations of the most fundamental rights can be disregarded with impunity.

As far as compensation is concerned, the victims demand a fair provision pending a well-documented claim for damages, documented with psychiatric records.

First reaction on behalf of the victims to the judgment of the Court of First Instance in Ghent of 1 October 2013


The Court states that the Holy See enjoys constitutional immunity and therefore cannot be sued in court. In other words, the victims are denied access to justice because the Holy See enjoys immunity as a government of a State (Vatican City). The victims have never denied that the Vatican is a state from which the head of state has a certain immunity, but this only applies to acts of constitutional law. When the Pope, as head of the Roman Catholic Church, for years looked the other way after various complaints from victims of sexual abuse instead of providing effective and efficient help, he did not commit constitutional acts but acted as a careless leader of the globally active organization that is the Church. According to the victims, the immunity does not extend to such acts, which have nothing to do with running the Vatican's state territory.


As for the Belgian church leaders, the court does not respond to the victims' request to assess the errors within the Church “at the policy level”. This was nevertheless the only possibility for the victims to hold the Church as an organization, which has no legal personality, responsible for the policy regarding the many reported sexual abuses, and of which – also according to the court – the Belgian Bishops themselves have expressly recognized and confirmed. that it was careless and wrong. The rejection of the request to assess the errors at the policy level means that each victim will have to individually and concretely demonstrate which specific errors are blamed on each church leader. The victims deplore this approach, which will cause a multitude of lawsuits and threaten to render the Church as an “organization” untouchable from claims for damages. If church leaders can admit their "moral responsibility" for an error committed by the organization they lead, it is unacceptable that the victims cannot have the same error judged by a court of law.


Moreover, it is incomprehensible that, as rightly noted in the verdict, the church leaders first recognized “moral responsibility for the careless treatment (silence) of sexual abuses committed against minors in the ranks of the Roman Catholic Church in Belgium”. and that then those same church leaders can successfully argue in the proceedings that they allegedly do not know what wrong they are being charged with, and that the subpoena is therefore deemed null and void.

The very understandable and necessary lament of the victims to maintain the necessary anonymity and discretion during the debate about the errors already openly acknowledged at the Church level, and on the other hand the absence of legal personality of the Church as an organization, is thus abused. created to maintain that Church leaders would not know exactly what they are being accused of.


Also in the criminal case (the investigation “Operation KELK” ongoing in Brussels) the victims had to conclude that the Church authorities are making a real exhaustion of it and consistently avoiding the root of the case.

The Belgian legal system therefore appears to be unable for the time being to serve justice in this case and to offer the victims an effective and accessible forum to see the explicitly recognized responsibility of the Church as an institution also translated into legal terms.

Since the victims of sexual abuse within the Church have found a lot of strength in their collective struggle, they will soon consider an appeal.

Victims lodge an appeal

The victims of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church appealed, almost unanimously, against the judgment of the Court of First Instance. They made their objections known by means of five 'grievances'.

They asked that the Belgian justices of the Court of Appeal exercise their jurisdiction over the Holy See, unlike the judges in First Instance.

The victims wished that the professional judges, in addition to the Holy See, also hold the Belgian Bishops and Major Superiors liable for the years of lack of decisive policy regarding the facts of sexual abuse committed by clerics known to them.

The case was brought before the 16th Chamber of the Court of Appeal in Ghent on 20 December 2013.

The UN report is sharp

In its UN report of January 31, 2014, the Committee on the Rights of the Child condemned in very clear terms the policy of the Holy See (the Vatican) on sexual abuse of children by clergy. The Committee conducted an extensive investigation before these statements.

According to the Committee, the Holy See's mismanagement allowed priests to abuse tens of thousands of children and, in retrospect, the wrong approach caused child abuse victims and their families to be re-victimized (paragraph 33, b).

We summarize:

  1. The Committee's considerations on the mismanagement of the Holy See:
  • The Holy See, the central governing body, systematically placed self-interest above the protection of the victims (paragraph 9);
  • The Holy See refused to cooperate with secular authorities and did not provide the information requested by investigators;
  • The Holy See did not take appropriate measures in time to prevent sexual abuse by priests and nuns (paragraph 12);
  • As a result, the Holy See failed to prevent child abuse and made it impossible for children to denounce the abuse, including by imposing a duty of confidentiality (paragraph 29)
  1. Liability for mismanagement around the world

The Committee considers that the Holy See, as supreme Lieutenant Governor of the Catholic Church, must respect the rights of the child in any situation involving individuals and institutions under its authority. This is a clear rebuke to the well-known strategy that the Holy See also uses in the civil procedure in Ghent: to pretend not to have a say in bishops and priests and at the same time to point out the immunity as head of state of Vatican City.

  1. The main recommendations by the Committee:
  • The Holy See must immediately dismiss all abusive clerics;
  • The victims must receive compensation, without an imposed duty of confidentiality;
  • Both the abusers and the people who held them over their heads must be held accountable;
  • The Holy See should establish clear rules for mandatory reporting of abuse to the police and support laws that allow victims to report abuse themselves.
  • In July 2013, Vatican laws were drafted on child abuse. These must be made immediately applicable to all individuals and institutions under the supreme authority of the Holy See (not just situations in Vatican City).

In this report we read many considerations that the victims of sexual abuse in Belgium already formulated during the summons of the Holy See and the Belgian bishops before the court of Ghent. Their thesis is emphatically endorsed and reinforced here. The report is not only an important piece of evidence in the pending case, but also a decisive argument for obtaining legal recognition for the justified claims of the victims.

Would you like to know more about the UN report of the Committee on the Rights of the Child?

Read the full report here.

On February 5, 2014, the VRT published the reaction of Archbishop Silvano Tomasi: “dishonest, twisted and ideologically colored”.

That same day, De Morgen headlined UN: Vatican allowed abuse of tens of thousands of children.

On April 11, 2014, Het Laatste Nieuws announced: Pope Francis apologizes for child abuse by priests .

To register

For any victim of sexual abuse in the pastoral sphere, it remains possible to participate in the proceedings conducted by our office against the Holy See, the Belgian bishops and the Major Superiors, even in the period after the summons was sent.

Anyone who wishes to register for the time being while retaining his/her anonymity can be represented by mr. Roel Verschueren.

To register as a candidate participant in this class-action, you can contact our office by telephone (09 269 10 69) to arrange a first non-binding consultation with mr. Mussche to invest.

Afterwards we will ask you to application form completed and send by e-mail to info@vsadvocaten.be or by fax to 09 233 00 47.

mr. Pieter-Bram Lagae inform you about the financial agreements.