Spokesman for embattled Belgian archbishop quits, cites loss of trust
The spokesman for Belgium’s Roman Catholic leader quit on Tuesday, citing a loss of trust in the archbishop who has caused a storm with harsh comments on AIDS and caring words for some paedophile priests.
Jürgen Mettepenningen, a theologian who became Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard’s spokesman in August, announced his decision only days after the prelate agreed to stop speaking in public until Christmas to calm the storm engulfing the Church.
(Image: Jürgen Mettepenningen, 2 Nov 2010/screengrab RTL video)
His resignation reflected growing criticism of Léonard within his own church, where bishops have cautiously spoken out against their leader and lay Catholics are turning increasingly caustic. Politicians have also stepped up criticism of him. It also highlighted the damage that scandals of clerical sex abuse of minors have done to the Church in Europe, especially in Belgium and Ireland where bishops reacted in defensive ways that further angered Catholics and public officials.
“I no longer want, can and will act as spokesman for Archbishop Leonard,” said Mettepenningen, 35, in a statement announcing his immediate resignation.
“Archbishop Léonard has sometimes acted like someone who’s driving against the traffic and thinks everyone else is wrong,” he later told journalists (see full statement in French here). “For three months, I was his GPS but the driver holds the steering wheel and decides which way to go. All too often, I had to indicte that the route should be recalculated. But if the driver continues on his way, if he is blind to the accidents caused, then the GPS doesn’t have to wait to be dismissed. It should withdraw by itself because its function has become superfluous.”
“Archbishop Léonard does not take his leadership duties seriously,” Mettepenningen added. “But it is above all his surrealist attitude regarding the turmoil stirred up by his remarks that I take too seriously to still support this.”
Léonard, an abrasive outspoken conservative, broke his vow of silence on Monday to defend a comment from last week that prosecuting retired priests on charges of sexual abuse of minors was “a kind of vengeance” on men no longer in pastoral work. In an earlier comment that also triggered an uproar, he called AIDS “immanent justice” for promiscuous behaviour.
The Belgian Church has been reeling since Bruges Bishop Roger Vangheluwe quit in April after confessing to abusing his own nephew sexually for many years and Leonard’s predecessor, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, admitted to making mistakes in handling abuse cases. Almost 600 alleged cases of past abuse have been registered since then. The scandals have prompted some bishops to ask whether the Church should reconsider its mandatory celibacy rule.
Losing patience with the bishops’ inability to deal with the abuse crisis, the lower house of parliament decided on Thursday to set up a special commission to investigate the scandals. Léonard’s comment on paedophile priests prompted Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp to say he “had a problem” with it and to insist that the archbishop spoke only for himself. Léonard is the Catholic primate of Belgium and president of the bishops conference.
The Interdiocesan Pastoral Council (IPB), an association of lay Catholic groups in traditionally Catholic Flanders, denounced Léonard as being out of touch with his own Church. “Leonard doesn’t listen to the feelings of the faithful,” IPB chairwoman Josian Caproens wrote. “Many inside and outside the Church are very annoyed by his haughty attitude.”
European Union President Herman Van Rompuy, a practising Catholic, has also weighed into the crisis in his home Church. He told the Brussels daily Le Soir that he was “shocked, disgusted and angered” by the scandals. “The Church is ready for a reformation,” he said. “The real problem is that there isn’t any democracy at all in the Church.”
Belgian media reported that Léonard planned to write an open letter to all priests in his archdiocese to explain his controversial recent remarks.