Thursday, December 30, 2010

Belgian activist priest admits sexual abuse

A Belgian priest has confessed to a child sex-abuse accusation that came to light during a campaign to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work fighting globalization's impact on developing countries.

The confession was published in a Belgian newspaper Wednesday and confirmed by the organization the priest founded, deepening a sex-abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church in the country. 

After a spate of accusations this year, the church in September published the harrowing accounts of more than 100 victims of clerical sex abuse, some as young as 2 when they were assaulted.

In October, after supporters of 85-year-old Francois Houtart began working to nominate him for the Nobel, a woman contacted the nonprofit organization he founded and said the priest had abused her brother 40 years ago, according to its director, Bernard Duterme.

Houtart resigned the next month from the board of Cetri, which publishes reports critical of developed nations' actions in the Third World, Duterme said.

Houtart told the newspaper Le Soir that he twice touched "the intimate parts" of his cousin, an incident he called "inconsiderate and irresponsible."

In her e-mail to Cetri and the committee to nominate Houtart for the Nobel Prize, the victim's sister also pointed to her testimony in the church's report, Duterme said.

There, she details the abuse of her brother, which she describes as "rape," by an unnamed priest.

She says the priest, who was a friend of her father, entered her brother's room twice "to rape him." 

''Before the third time, my brother went to tell his parents, who kept him in their room," she is quoted as saying in the report.

The priest isn't named in the report.

Houtart is in Ecuador and didn't immediately respond to phone calls and e-mail Wednesday, but he told Le Soir that he entered the boy's room, when he was staying with the boy's parents close to Liege, in eastern Belgium.

"Walking through the room of one of the family's boys, I effectively touched his intimate parts twice, which woke him up and frightened him," Houtart is quoted as saying.

The committee in November ended its campaign to nominate Houtart for the 2011 Nobel Prize, saying the priest had requested its termination because "his age and his personal projects would not allow him to fully assume the role requested in such circumstances."

In a statement, the committee said "thousands of people" in 74 countries had participated in the signature campaign, recognizing Houtart's role in the social justice and antiglobalization movement.

It has been a traumatic year for the Catholic Church in Belgium, beginning in April with the resignation of the Bishop of Bruges Roger Vangheluwe. 

Vangheluwe admitted to having sexually abused a nephew for years when he was a priest and a bishop.

In June, authorities seized hundreds of case files from a church and used power tools to open a prelate's crypt in Mechlin's St. Rumbold Cathedral, seeking evidence. 

The raid was condemned by the Vatican and later ruled excessive by a Belgian court.

However, the investigation into the abuse continued and in September the Catholic Church published an almost 200-page report detailing the testimonies of 124 victims of abuse by Catholic clergy over decades.

In the church's report, the victim's sister says her father went to talk to the priest about the incident a few days later and asked him to apologize, but the priest declined and "told my father that there wasn't anything more normal." 

Her father then cut off all contact with Houtart, the woman says.

In his letter to Le Soir, Houtart says he was "personally perturbed" by the incident, "since I was conscious of the contradiction it represented with my Christian faith and my function as a priest."

He says the boy's parents suggested he get in touch with a professor in Liege, who advised him to stay in the priesthood and concentrate on his work.

Francois Polet, a researcher at Cetri, said the organization decided not to go public with the reason for Houtart's resignation from the board at the victim's sister's request. 

He said the precise relationship between Houtart and the victim — whether he was a cousin, nephew, or more distant relative — wasn't clear.

"It was a big, big surprise and a big, big (disappointment)," Polet said of the revelation. 

"Directly for us it was very clear that we could not continue to have some kind of collaboration" with Houtart.