BRUSSELS — Belgium’s longest serving bishop resigned today, expressing sorrow for having sexually abused a young boy both as a priest and after becoming a bishop in 1984.
The resignation of Roger Vangheluwe, 73, the bishop of Bruges, was the first from Belgium since a child abuse scandal began testing the Catholic Church several months ago in Europe and the United States.
Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard of Belgium read a statement in which Vangheluwe announced his resignation and admitted to sexual abuse. Pope Benedict XVI has accepted his resignation.
Vangheluwe did not attend the news conference.
His resignation stands out because while several bishops have resigned amid the abuse scandal — three from Ireland in the past four months alone — they did so under the weight of accusations they shielded pedophiles in their roles, not because they themselves abused children.
“When I was still just a priest, and for a certain period at the beginning of my episcopate, I sexually abused a minor from my immediate environment,” Vangheluwe said in his statement read by Leonard.
“The victim is still marked by what happened. Over the course of these decades I have repeatedly recognized my guilt toward him and his family, and I have asked forgiveness. But this did not pacify him, as it did not pacify me.”
Vangheluwe was due to retire next year.
Earlier this month, Norwegian church officials revealed that Bishop Georg Mueller had resigned a year earlier because he had molested a child when he was a priest.
One of the highest-ranking churchmen to resign because he himself was an abuser was the late Austrian Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer. He was forced to resign as archbishop in 1995 over claims he had molested youths at a monastery in the 1970s.
Leonard said the church was stepping up to deal with the scandal.
“We are aware of the crisis of confidence his resignation will set in motion,” Leonard said. But he stressed the Catholic Church in Belgium was determined to “turn over a leaf from a not very distant past.”
Leonard became Belgium’s archbishop this year.
In his Easter homily, he addressed the pedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church, saying in the past “the reputation of church leaders was given a higher priority than that of abused children.”
As elsewhere, the Catholic Church in Belgium has a weak record of cracking down on sexual abusers in its ranks.
In 2000 it created a panel to look into abuse complaints that quickly clashed with the church leadership. The panel has accused the church of tardiness in compensating victims.
Hundreds of people have come forward in recent months, including in Pope Benedict’s native Germany, accusing priests of raping and abusing them while bishops and other church higher-ups turned a blind eye.
This week, the Vatican has said it would do everything in its power to bring justice to abusive priests and implement “effective measures” to protect children.
It recently published guidelines instructing bishops to report abuse to police when civil laws require it. The Vatican insists that has long been church policy, though it was never before explicitly written.