Intentional or not, Pope offers valuable conclave advice on baggage of abuse

ROME — Even before Pope Francis hosted his final consistory on Aug. 27, inducting 20 new members into the most exclusive club in the Catholic Church, the event managed to make the news — in this case, not so much for the new cardinals who will be there, but the one former cardinal-designate who won’t.

Last Thursday, the Episcopal Conference of Belgium announced that the 80-year-old former bishop of Ghent, Lucas Van Looy, had obtained permission from Pope Francis to refuse his appointment as cardinal, which the pontiff had announced during his traditional Sunday Speech by Regina Caeli on May 29.


The reason for the withdrawal is that Van Looy’s record on clerical abuse scandals has been criticized and inevitably making him a cardinal would therefore be seen as insensitive and offensive to abuse survivors.

There are a handful of unanswered questions about the story, but the biggest takeaway is this: Whether he likes it or not, Pope Francis has done a favor for the cardinals who will elect his successor, whenever that time comes. , reminding them that whoever they choose must have an impeccable record of abuse scandals, or the next papacy will begin under a cloud that may never clear.

Van Looy himself, let’s be clear, was never a strong contender for the top job. On the one hand, he was one of the “fees” choices of Pope Francis, that is to say a cardinal already aged over 80 years and therefore ineligible to participate in the next conclave.

However, if even a relatively symbolic appointment can generate such a fierce reaction, just think what the blowback would be if the honor were infinitely greater, that is, the papacy itself.

To briefly summarize the indictment against Van Looy, appointed to Ghent in 2004 and resigned in 2019, he is accused of several shortcomings in abuse cases.

In 2005, Van Looy allegedly paid $25,000 to a victim of a Belgian priest named Father Omer Verbeke, but did not inform civil authorities that Verbeke continued to run an orphanage in Rwanda until 2014. when the charges against him became public.

In 2007, Van Looy assigned another anonymous Belgian priest who had been found guilty of sexual assault on a minor in 1994 in a new parish. When the case was reported by local media in 2010, Van Looy defended the decision: “After much deliberation, we decided we could give him another chance,” Van Looy said. “There were no new allegations either. He made mistakes, but they are a thing of the past.

In 2010, testifying before a Belgian parliamentary commission on sexual abuse, Van Looy admitted that he had failed to report six complaints against priests to civil authorities, saying their cases seemed “less urgent” because they had all taken their retirement. It is unclear whether Van Looy forwarded these complaints to the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as he was obligated to do under a 2001 convention. motu owner of Pope John Paul II.

In 2013, Van Looy, who is also a member of the Salesian religious order, was aware of a decision allowing another Belgian priest named Fr Luk Delft to accept an appointment in the Central African Republic with the global Catholic charity Caritas. , despite the fact that Delft had been sentenced to Belgium the previous year in Belgium for two charges of children’s abuse and child pornography. In CAR, Delft was charged with two other acts of abuse.

This is all on top of the fact that critics say Van Looy favored two controversial groups within the Belgian church, het werk (“The Work”) and Blauwe Zusters (“Blue Sisters”), both charged with abuse of conscience and authority.

Presumably none of this was why Francis chose to bestow a red hat on Van Looy, who was hired by the pope for a leadership role in Caritas in 2015 and was also named one personal delegates of the pope to a synod of bishops on youth in 2018. . Most likely, Francis wanted to offer some kind of “thank you” to Van Looy for these past services.

Yet the troubling part of the story is that everything noted above about Van Looy’s abuse crisis dossier was accessible to anyone with access to Google; indeed, Delft’s story was widely covered by CNN in 2019 under the title “The Case of the Predatory Priest”.

Van Looy is not the only cardinal-designate of this latest generation with a controversial past.

Bishop Oscar Cantoni of Como in northern Italy has also come under fire for his role in a pre-seminary sponsored by the Diocese of Como, previously located on Vatican grounds until it was moved by Pope Francis, during which abuses allegedly took place. Cantoni was summoned to testify in a Vatican court in February 2021 in the case, including on his role in the ordination to the priesthood of one of the alleged (but ultimately acquitted) attackers.

The court found that while there was clearly a sexualized atmosphere in the pre-seminar, the behavior in question had not been proven to constitute abuse. For his part, Cantoni acknowledged receiving negative reports about the future priest between 2006 and 2012, but he described them simply as evidence of a “transient homosexual tendency linked to adolescence”.

Francis is obviously aware of this episode, since the trial took place with his permission and inside the Vatican itself.

Naturally, one assumes that Francis had information that led him to decide to make Van Looy and Cantoni cardinals, despite the question marks surrounding the two men.

However, the episode nonetheless offers a reminder that while a new cardinal’s reputation can be damaged by association with these scandals, to the point that one of them actually feels compelled to back down, even if their intended position was almost entirely symbolic – well, as the Italians would say, magari a dad!

Imagine, in other words, if it was the new pope.

Of course, shortly after Francis’ election, there was a short-lived attempt to link him to a few mishandled abuse cases during his time in Argentina, but that effort fell apart when he was became clear that the offending priests were not from Buenos Aires and were never under the direct authority of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Like the similar attempt to smear the new pope’s record of the “dirty war” in Argentina, a critical review has largely dispelled early doubts.

Memorandum, therefore, to the 133 elector cardinals who will be able to vote in the next election after August 27: you may want to be sure that any doubts about the person you are considering can be resolved in the same way, because the last thing the Church probably needs is a Van Looy scenario on an infinitely grander scale.


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