WESTVLETEREN, Belgium — Behind an aggressive investigation of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Belgium that drew condemnation from the pope himself lies a stark family tragedy: the molestation, for years, of a youth by his uncle, the bishop of Bruges; the prelate’s abrupt resignation when a friend of the nephew finally threatened to make the abuse public; and now the grass-roots fury of almost 500 people complaining of abuse by priests.
The first resignation of a European bishop for abusing a child relative came unexpectedly on April 23. At 73, the Bruges bishop, Roger Vangheluwe, Belgium’s longest-serving prelate, tersely announced his retirement and acknowledged molesting “a boy in my close entourage.”
The boy, not named, was his own nephew, now in his early 40s.
The nephew’s story, pieced together through documents and interviews with him and others, shows that the nephew, acting after years of torment and strong evidence of church inaction, finally forced the bishop’s hand when the friend sent e-mail messages to all of Belgium’s bishops threatening to expose Bishop Vangheluwe.
For nearly 25 years, the nephew said, he sought to alert others that he had been molested by his uncle. Abuse started when he was 10, according to a retired priest, the Rev. Rik Devillé, who said he had tried to warn Belgium’s cardinal, Godfried Danneels, about the Bruges prelate’s abuse 14 years ago, but was berated for doing so.
It is not known whether Cardinal Danneels or others notified the Vatican, itself mired in allegations of inaction on sexual abuse, about the case at the time.
The Vatican accepted the bishop’s resignation as the scandal erupted in April but said nothing about the case until the Belgian police raided church properties in late June, an act that Pope Benedict XVI called “deplorable.” Now Belgium is unique in that civil authorities seized the documents that the church might have used to pursue its own investigations, apparently placing long-shrouded cases in the public realm.
Over the years, the nephew — who still does not want his name used publicly — channeled his rage into creating art: giant screaming images in gnarled wood or a montage of a boy being crushed by a mattress.
The resignation for sexual abuse sent waves through the Catholic hierarchy in Flanders, the northern Dutch-speaking part of the country, where religion is a powerful cultural influence.
Bishop Vangheluwe, who retreated to a Trappist monastery, remains under investigation by the Belgian authorities in perhaps another child sexual abuse case and accusations that he concealed such complaints lodged against others.
A public pledge by Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard of Brussels that the Bruges resignation marked an end to cover-ups prompted more than 500 people — mostly men — to come forward in just two months.
“For the first time there is a generation of men who are telling that they were sexually abused by men,” said Peter Adriaenssens, a psychiatrist who led an internal church commission on sexual abuse but resigned last month after the police confiscated all his case files. Mr. Adriaenssens noted that many boys were beaten by parents who disbelieved their complaints. There was, he said, a “silencing of society.”
With so many new potential victims, the police staged extraordinary raids last month, holding bishops for nine hours at the church’s Belgian offices in Mechelen while scouring the premises for hidden material. They drilled into a cardinal’s crypt and confiscated computers and documents, searching for proof that the church had concealed evidence.
Bishop Vangheluwe’s nephew remains reluctant to speak extensively about what happened. “I’m scared, and the church has a lot of power,” he said, standing near a wooden image of two heads, one with a mouth carved wide into a scream.
Father Devillé, who was alerted to the bishop’s behavior by a friend of the nephew but had no direct contact with the abused youth, said: “For the nephew, it was impossible to say anything. He didn’t want anyone else to know because there was great pressure in the family to keep silent.”
Father Devillé said the abuse continued for about eight years. When he confronted Cardinal Danneels in 1996, he said, the cardinal listened impatiently, glancing frequently at his watch. Weeks later, Father Devillé received a letter from the cardinal. “Stop making unfounded public accusations against the church and its functionaries if you don’t have proof,” it read.
Under Belgian law, a sexual abuse victim can lodge a criminal complaint for only up to 10 years after turning 18. The church contends that Bishop Vangheluwe cannot face prosecution because the case is too old.
Cardinal Danneels, who was questioned for 10 hours last Tuesday by the police, said through his lawyer that he did not recall Bishop Vangheluwe’s name mentioned in connection with abuse.
Mr. Adriaenssens, who specializes in working with sexual abuse victims, said he believed that the turning point for the nephew came when a 12-year-old niece took home a holy card with a message from the bishop presented as a remembrance of her confirmation.
“It was a little card with a nice picture on the front and inside text from him on the importance of a healthy childhood,” Mr. Adriaenssens said. “This made him enraged.”
A meeting was arranged in April between the nephew, his family and the bishop of Bruges. But the family was infuriated that the retired Cardinal Danneels was the only other cleric present. They were expecting the newly appointed archbishop to attend, according to Mr. Adriaenssens, who said the family feared that the church was maneuvering to “silence” it.
Those suspicions were rooted deep because Belgian church officials failed to cooperate with child abuse cases stretching back over many years, according to Godelieve Halsberghe, a retired magistrate who led the internal church commission from 2000 to 2008.
In those eight years, Ms. Halsberghe said, she dealt with 33 cases, with 15 or 16 outstanding when she retired and the other half resolved with compensation for the victims, generally tens of thousands of euros. Church officials said only four cases were left outstanding. They also said that all cases notified to them after 2001 were passed on to the Vatican in accordance with rules set then by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, named pope in 2005. She said she dealt only with the Belgian church.
By April 19 this year, the e-mail messages from the nephew’s friend had reached all of Belgium’s bishops. A day later, Mr. Adriaenssens received news of a call from the nephew making a formal complaint to the commission hot line about his uncle. Mr. Adriaenssens called the bishop.
“This is your first moment to be a real priest,” Mr. Adriaenssens said he told him after the bishop admitted responsibility. Within an hour of calls to other commissioners, the view was: The bishop had to resign.
Now Belgian prosecutors and investigators must sort the hundreds of complaints that have emerged since.
Justice Minister Stefaan De Clerck said his nation was living through a period of soul-searching similar to what followed the scandal over Marc Dutroux, who was arrested in 1996 and eventually convicted in the kidnapping, torture and sexual abuse of six girls, including four who died even though the police searched his home while some victims were imprisoned there.
“How can you explain that so many people didn’t go to police, didn’t go to justice?” Mr. De Clerck asked.
Mr. Vangheluwe is abiding by an agreement with the conference of bishops that he cannot grant interviews while living in St. Sixtus Abbey here in Westvleteren.
At vespers on Thursday, he stood out among 24 monks in homespun black and white robes. Holding a prayer book turned to Psalm 99, he was a stooped figure in gray trousers, a light short-sleeved shirt and sandals.
After prayers, half of the monks left; Mr. Vangheluwe stayed for an optional 10 minutes of silent contemplation.