The Belgian bishops’ conference said Van Looy’s request was made to “prevent the victims of such abuses from being hurt again.”
For a church badly bruised by years of abuse scandals, the episode showed the far-reaching repercussions that can come after a church leader is tied to the mishandling of cases. It also raises questions about the Vatican’s process for examining the records of individuals selected by Francis to become cardinal — a position that implies a lifetime of good service to the church.
Why the Vatican continues to struggle with sex abuse scandals
“Everybody in Belgium knew about it,” said Lieve Halsberghe, an advocate for victims of clerical abuse in the country. She emphasized that Van Looy’s request “did not come from his conscience. It came because there were protests from a human rights group.”
The Vatican did provide a statement of its own on the matter, and a spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
The Belgian bishops’ conference said that Francis’s initial decision to name Van Looy a cardinal had provoked “much positive reaction.” But there was also criticism, the conference said, “of the fact that he did not always react energetically enough” against “abuses in the pastoral relationship” while serving as the bishop of Ghent from 2003 until 2019.
Van Looy had been one of 21 individuals Francis selected for the honor, a move that will be formalized — for the other 20 — during a consistory in August. Even had Van Looy been made a cardinal, he would have been unable to participate in any future conclave as a result of his age, 80. (Only cardinals younger than 80 can help to select the next pope.)
The Belgian bishop’s conference did not provide details about any accusations of wrongdoing by Van Looy.
His name has come up in several past news accounts, however. He is listed on the website Bishop-Accountability.org, a clearinghouse for clerical abuse information, on a page dedicated to bishops who have mishandled cases. The site mentions a Belgian predator priest accused of abuse both in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Ghent.
Van Looy was not leading the diocese of Ghent when the accusations first arose, but after he became bishop, the diocese sent a Congolese victim $25,000 in 2005. He, however, did not step in to notify civil authorities about the priest’s ongoing activities — working at a nonprofit to help orphans from the genocide in Rwanda — until 2014, Bishop-Accountability said in a statement Friday.
Though Van Looy has personally spoken out about the cruelties of abuse, describing the “inhumane suffering” of victims, he has also admitted to notifying justice authorities of six letters he had received pertaining to cases, according to a Belgian media account from 2010. Van Looy called those letters “less pressing” because the accusations pertained to retired priests.
Van Looy is part of the Salesians of Don Bosco religious order. Belgium’s Salesians were involved in a scandal that resulted from a 2019 CNN investigation into a Belgian priest, convicted of abuse in a Ghent court, who was then sent to the Central African Republic, where he was accused of abuse again.
Belgium has faced a tsunami of damaging abuse-related revelations, many of them bubbling to the surface in 2010, in what leaders described as one of the most difficult crises in the history of Belgium’s Catholic church. A report released in 2010 described hundreds of cases over five decades, and noted that 13 victims had been driven to take their own lives in the wake of the trauma.