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Here’s what the defrocking of Vangheluwe suggests about the Rupnik scandal…

Here’s what the defrocking of Vangheluwe suggests about the Rupnik scandal…
Roger Vangheluwe, the former Bishop of Brugge, in a 2007 photo. (Image: Carolus/Wikipedia)

Thursday’s news about the defrocking of Roger Vangheluwe has given us an answer to a question raised with some palpable urgency by another high-profile scandal touching the very echelons of power in the Vatican.

The other case is that of Fr. Marko Rupnik, the inveterate creep and serial abuser of mostly religious women, accused but never tried for his alleged crimes, which he committed over three decades, much of which he spent right under the noses of Roman authorities in the Society of Jesus—to which he then belonged—and the Vatican for which he did a lot of work.

Perhaps the past tense of the verb “to do” is not accurate. Rupnik is still listed as a consultant to the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Since the one thing of which Rupnik has been convicted is criminal abuse of the confessional, one may suspect some fuzziness in the office about what “discipline of the sacraments” really means.

The Rupnik business is ghastly, but we were talking about Roger Vangheluwe.

In case you’ve lost track, Vangheluwe is the deep-dyed pervert and serial criminal sexual abuser of his own nephews. Yes, that’s nephews, plural. Vangheluwe was the Bishop of Bruges in Belgium for a quarter century until he was found out and admitted to his abuse in 2010.

Belgian authorities decided not to prosecute Uncle Roger, saying his crimes were statute-barred. Pope Benedict XVI sent Vangheluwe out of the public eye and into early retirement. He kept his “emeritus” title—usually reserved for bishops in good standing—and went to a Cistercian abbey.

There may be some very strict sense in which the claims from the Vatican (through the nunciature) may be accurate, but that doesn’t make them true in any pertinent sense.

Since nobody with a position of responsibility in the Church has offered particulars regarding these grave new elements, it’s impossible to say.

One may be forgiven the impression that’s the way the Vatican types want it, though—this is pure speculation—the communiqué from the nunciature to Belgium reads like it was written by a guy who knows how bad it sounds and isn’t at any pains to make it sound any better than it is, even if he’ll play ball for the time being and keep the details under wraps.

One supposes it could be pure coincidence that these grave new elements have come to light just as Belgium’s Prime Minister, Alexander De Croo, called on the Vatican to strip Vangheluwe of his ecclesiastical dignity; and just as the Belgian bishops testified before a parliamentary inquiry to the effect that they’ve been quietly lobbying the pope for action on Vangheluwe since at least 2017; and just as the Belgian bishops’ mouthpiece told the parliament of Flanders that the pope’s planned visit couldn’t possibly come off unless the Vangheluwe business was addressed first.

I mean, it’s possible.

Cathobel.be had a piece saying the DDF had “the recent testimony of a victim” among the new elements, but that could mean lots of things.

Among the strange coincidences surrounding the Vangheluwe affair is that these grave new elements have come to the DDF only after another senior prelate tarnished by the scandal, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, became safely dead.

Danneels, you may recall, resigned his capital see of Mechelen-Brussels in disgrace in 2010, after it emerged that he had pressured one of Vangheluwe’s victims to keep quiet about the abuse he had suffered, at least until Vangheluwe was retired.

Danneels was down, but only momentarily. Danneels kept his red hat and his voting rights and participated in the conclave that elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio in 2013. Pope Francis had Danneels on the loggia with him when he first greeted the faithful, hinting at a rehabilitation that the pope would further when he invited Danneels to participate in the 2014 synod on the family. Danneels died in 2019.

What do the Rupnik case and the Vangheluwe case have to do with one another?

Well, the Rupnik case has raised the question of what it may take for a clerical abuser with powerful friends to be disciplined by the Church.

The answer appears to be that it takes at least the prospect of embarrassment to Pope Francis, highlighted by a sitting prime minister and the whole of the local bishops’ conference.

That might just do it.

If, on the other hand, you are the victim of abuse at the hands of a priest or bishop with friends in the curia, and if you can’t count on the vocal public support of a sitting head of government and your local bishops’ conference, you’re probably out of luck.

Just ask the victims of Fr. Marko Rupnik.


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