Sexual abuse in the Church

Since the 1990s, VSA has been assisting dozens of victims of sexual abuse and going to extremes in the legal quest for justice. To this end, VSA worked out a two-track process. On the one hand, a civil claim brought against those responsible for the cover-up in the church, in the form of a class action against the Vatican (especially the Holy See as the main organ of the Roman Catholic Church) and the Belgian bishops. On the other hand, bets were made on the 'Operation Chalice' criminal case and safeguarding the crucial documents coming from the archdiocese. In parallel, VSA assisted several victims in the mediation process before the Centre of Arbitration on Sexual Abuse in Brussels.

Operation Kelk

Civil claim against the Holy See

January 2000
Commission Halsberghe
March 2010
Adriaenssens Commission
23 April 2010
Danneels tapes force Church to make public confessions.
4 June 2010
Priest Devillé reports of
> 1000 files of sexual abuse to Federal Judicial Police.
21 June 2010
Judicial enquiry launched 'Operation Chalice'
24 June 2010
Searches at St Rombaut's Cathedral, the archiepiscopal palace and the residence and offices of Archbishop Cardinal Danneels in Mechelen. 931 boxes are seized.
9 September 2010
Chamber of Indictments (KIB) decides to lift the seizures and annul the searches of 24 June 2010.
12 October 2010
Supreme Court breaks the KIB judgment of 9 September 2010 because the victims were unlawfully not summoned to the KIB hearing.
8 March 2011
Federal prosecutor decides to take charge of investigation.
18 December 2012
KIB decides that the seized documents should be removed from the criminal file and kept at the registry. The request of the archdiocese and the late Godfrey Danneels to return the documents to them is rejected.
20 March 2014
KIB decides to return the confiscated documents to the archdiocese. The victims are again not summoned and are not informed of this decision.
September 1, 2014
Investigations are closed by the investigating judge and the file is handed over to the Federal Prosecution Service to draw up a final claim.
28 April 2016
First session of the Council Chamber in Brussels regarding the settlement of the proceedings, postponed following a request for additional investigation by some civil parties.
23 October 2020
Victims regained access to the file and found that the 931 boxes of confiscated documents had already been returned to the archdiocese in March 2014.
9 November 2020
Second session of the Council Chamber in Brussels m.o.o. the regulation of justice, at which a procedural problem is identified.
29 April 2021
KIB asks the Federal Prosecutor's Office to draw up a new final claim. To date, the prosecutor's office has not yet done so for unclear reasons, so the investigation could still not be formally closed.
12 July 2011
Subpoena to the Holy See, the Belgian bishops and the higher superiors of the religious orders and congregations to obtain compensation for the victims because of the cover-up of sexual abuse.  
1 October 2013
Ghent civil court rules that the Holy See is immune from prosecution in Belgium.
25 February 2016
Ghent Court of Appeal upholds 1 October 2013 ruling that the Holy See is immune from prosecution in Belgium.
2 February 2017
Victims petition European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) against Belgium for violation of their right to access to justice (Article 6, §1 ECHR)
12 October 2021
ECHR rules that the Holy See can invoke state immunity.
12 January 2021
Request VSA to send case to ECHR Grand Chamber
28 February 2022
Grand Chamber rejects request for reassessment.

How does it go from here?

VSA's fight will continue tirelessly until justice is done for the victims. Thus, after Operation Chalice will have finally ended in a stalemate because of the elimination of all evidence, VSA will go to the European Court of Human Rights to hold the Belgian judiciary accountable.

Also read 'Operation Church'

Walter Van Steenbrugge does not mince words in this candid book. In his rich career as a top lawyer, two cases have impressed him: Operation Chalice and the Euthanasia trial.

Both in his fight for the victims of sexual abuse in the Church and in his fight for the doctors who euthanised Tine Nys, Master Van Steenbrugge collided with machinations that remained hidden but influenced the course of the trials. A reconstruction of the facts lets the reader discover how the hand of the Church and the Vatican compromised the fundamental right to a fair trial.

In this book, Walter Van Steenbrugge tells how both cases went, where it stalled and how he fought against higher powers. An insight into the considerations that (should not) come into play at Lady Justice.

FAQ to Walter Van Steenbrugge regarding 'Operation Church'

Of course! It would be an act of madness for me to make public the malfunctions of the legal profession without being able to substantiate each reported fact with documents as well.

The malfunctions described are shocking, and it is sad that I have to make them public, but they are all on record and can be consulted, and I urge everyone to do the same and not look away. They can be a basis to remedy and ensure that our fundamental rights are safeguarded, both as victims and as citizens.

Thus, two clandestine, i.e. secret sessions were organised in Operation Chalice - unseen. The fight over the file documents from Operation Chalice, in which the Church waged a huge procedural war to get the cardboard boxes from the diocese back into their possession, was downright illegal. After the K.I. decided that the documents should remain in the file so that future victims could still see them, a secret session was organised of which neither the civil party, i.e. the victims, nor the investigating judge were aware. That session was chaired by ... and resulted in the documents being returned to the Church, thus decapitating the investigation. Again : all these facts can be verified and proved by court records, verdicts etc.

To witness this from the front row and simply look away and remain silent would be an act of guilty omission.
Victims are entitled to a fair trial, and citizens are entitled to the assurance of due process and thus an independently functioning judiciary.

The population has right to information On the course of dealing with socially highly relevant themes, in the case of sexual abuse in the church and the euthanasia process, this unfortunately holds major violations of fundamental rights(*) In.

If I didn't draw attention to those and just "let everything pass" a piece of shared responsibility for tearing down our rule of law to me, and I don't want that. I have spent half my life fighting to build and strengthen it.


(*1) Victims were denied access to justice

At the sexual abuse trial, the victims were denied access to the court in the civil section, as the court had the Vatican procedural tool accepted. This resulted in impunity for child abusers and their superiors, within the institution that ordered its members to cover up sexual abuse and thus not let it stop. "We are untouchable, above the judge and above the law and will therefore remain unpunished" was the thesis of the vatican which was followed by the secular court.

(*2) Victims were not given a fair trial

In the criminal part of the case, the victims - despite Article 6 vh ECHR, Belgian law and cassation case law - were denied the right of dissent in the decision to dispose of the church's many cartons of pieces that were seized. That decision was handed down in clandestine procedures taken. Rather, it is pure deception, where the victims were deliberately not involved in the procedures that determined the fate of the crown certificates. 

(*") In the euthanasia process, the essentiële democratic dynamics of mutually controlling powers proved completely absent, allowing a unexplained litigation resulted in justice Humane doctors as poison killers put on trial in a hugely expensive assize trial.

In the case of the euthanasia case, I have written down the inexplicable journey from the indictment to the trial in a lucid factual account. Any piece referred to can be requested from the publisher.

Dying with dignity is a fundamental issue with huge social impact, the run is therefore downright unacceptable and cries out for explanations. Therefore, it was referred to Parliament and the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, it remained without further investigation. And for now, under the lids as well.



Indeed, given the enormous social relevance of the two processes, I felt it was imperative to have people make aware of these malfunctions.

I also thought it was important no longer to wait : in the process of the euthanasia the cards have been shuffled, fortunately with positive results. The doctors were acquitted by the people's jury, which was followed by tough, hard-hitting proceedings by the opposing lawyers. So the acquittal has now also been confirmed by the appellate judges.

Finally, the constitutional court also ruled on the unconstitutionality of the euthanasia law and thus by extension of the process itself. After all, it cannot be that no distinction is made between violation of procedural and violation of substantive conditions, their punishment can never be equally severe.

Thus, there should be urgent legislative work to be done, but unfortunately, the ruling is already a year old and nothing has been done.

As for Operation Chalice, the decapitated criminal case that is still ongoing, waiting times are becoming absurd and delays unjustifiable. The explanation lies in the fact that the prosecution does not have the courage to take this case to court again as the file now includes the painful, unlawful and illegal expulsion of key evidence. It seems people are hoping this file will evaporate, while we waiting for the hearing to go to the European Court afterwards and the conviction of België to ask for the disconcerting judicial path that was taken.

Of course, there might be a reaction, the judiciary does not like criticism and especially not if it comes from its own ranks. Justice is not used to controls, audits or feedback. The only body created to examine the functioning of the court is the Supreme Judicial Council. Unfortunately, it too did not yield. This Council proved to be protective rather than controlling.

However, such a control very much needed, and concerns that this would compromise independence cannot be a licence for irresponsibility. That there never needed to be an explanation of the at least extraordinary course of both trials is actually unbelievable and downright dangerous.

The book is therefore a appeal to install new structures, an urgent demand for more control and transparency. Police and prosecutors are the most powerful institutions today - in itself, there is nothing wrong with that, provided their actions can be monitored and there is transparency. That this will not be discussed in parliament is a unworthy of democracy.

This is the first time in 37 years of practising law that I am writing a book about trials I have conducted. I could have done so much earlier and on much more sensational cases. I have always had a very had great reservations about reporting on processes. I did write about dysfunctions in justice before. The dysfunctions in these 2 cases were too brutal, too fundamental and too profound to do nothing with. I did not want to be complicit in covering up and keeping quiet about serious irregularities with the judiciary.

My initial attempts to have what happened investigated through the usual avenues (nml Supreme Court and Parliament) unfortunately ended in failure.

The Supreme Court proved to be a protective rather than a controlling body, and further investigation did not materialise in parliament either. Despite the fact that the parliamentarians present had decided by a large majority that it was absolutely necessary to further investigate the strange proceedings, the absence of many MPs ensured that the final outcome of the vote was negative for further investigation.

Moreover, listing socially relevant irregularities with the judiciary does not strike me as the most commercial action right now. Even the church case itself cost the law firm handsomely, not money.

Finally, I think it is also for the victims (all victims, not just the 154 who have applied to our office) important is that they see all the facts once again in a row, and thereby experience a piece of recognition. They have the right to know very precisely what forces played to quell their cry for recognition, and the public should know that the victims were never heard. The victims of sexual abuse in the church did not lose a trial, they just did not get one.

Absolutely not. Conspiracies are speculations, suggestions. Here it is about raw factual material. About - unfortunately! - pure reality. All referenced pieces can be viewed.

It is obviously in the interests of those who played a malafide role to put the book away in this way. What should happen is that the irregularities are examined to the bone, and the protagonists are questioned about their role. (Which I also asked for - unfortunately to no avail).

In the euthanasia process, the taxpayer paid millions for a trial that was a failure on all counts : in human terms, in legal terms, and in terms of the international damage to Belgium's image. The trial should never have taken place, the Constitutional Court also ruled. So the taxpayer has the right to know why that trial was held and what was behind it. The book should be a start to this. I really hope to achieve that, it is not too late.

For the victims: an overview of the bare facts, a clear listing what happened to their interests. (plus see above)

For all those imbued with the importance of Dying with dignity: continuing the fight.

If doctors had been condemned, mortally ill people would now be lying dying because no doctor could be found willing to help them say goodbye to life with dignity.

The legislature now urgently needs to do homework (Constitutional Court ruling) and write a partially new euthanasia law. This is incredibly urgent, it is not permissible to leave this matter unaddressed.

For the society: this should never happen again. As a community, we should no longer allow intentional injustices to happen.

For the rule of law: the euthanasia process has also seen the huge power of the prosecution in assize exposed. It has shown that, contrary to the law, there are no "equal" litigants.

In the same garb as the judge and as the "representative of society", the influence of the O.M. on the jury is enormous, which means that the impact of this party on the popular jury, regardless of their arguments or the content of their statements.

(6:6 result, half the votes declared the doctor guilty in a trial that the Constitutional Court said should not even have taken place. Best proof that enormous pressure was exerted by OM, and that is not healthy).

Young lawyers would do well to read this book, and become aware of this threatening phase in justice.

Heavily: all those involved in these chilling trajectories will obviously not be unmoved by reading this account.

I also hope for outrage, as an engine of change.

And finally, I think I will also receive positive responses from all the people who care about the rule of law, from doctors, from people who can be comforted by the thought of a dignified farewell.

We were not proven wrong. One case is not over, in the other we were proven right.

That it was necessary to deny victims access to justice and remove key witnesses from the case file are events that demonstrate the great right. No wrong can be done in a trial that has not even been able to be conducted.

Since Operation Chalice (criminal case) is still pending, a judge has yet to rule. Unfortunately, not much can be expected from that, as the documents are gone.

Then you can still go to European Court be gone to denounce how the Belgian judiciary broke this file in a totally unacceptable way.

Following these processes and retrospective analysis, recommendations and changes should take place, structures geinstalled so that powers are controlled and this can never happen again.

I should hope not, that would be bad. "Operation Church" is a confrontational but constructive book, providing material for reflection and analysis. I'm sure people who have a good interest in justice will build on this and make the necessary recommendations, resulting in hopefully significant structural improvements.

Other than that, I am not really into it, if people want to portray me as a litterbug, I will gladly take it. Addressing human rights violations is never popular with those who violate them. I am happy to pay that price for exposing injustices.

Absolutely, she and I went through that process in full. As you know, her specialisation is sex crimes, and she, like me, condemns the inadmissible illegalities. In the assize euthanasia trial, she was on my side. She has called that trial "the most useless trial ever".

Moreover, denouncing abuses is not something you do alone, it takes time, effort, courage and, above all, a whole team.