In the VRT series Godvergeten (Godforsaken), countless people testify about how they were sexually abused by clerics in the Catholic Church. The documentary was awarded the Impactprijs (Impact Award) by de Kastaars!, the Flemish media awards. The new impact award is "a prize for courage, boldness and daring in the Flemish media" and praises a program that "blew everyone away last year". But what now after Godvergeten? How should things continue for the victims, and how can we deal with the Church? Four experts provide their insights on the matter.
Since the 1990s, many victims of sexual abuse in the Church have sought refuge with Rik Devillé, the priest-author whose books are critical of the institution. We also see him in Godvergeten. On 28 March, UAntwerp confers an honorary doctorate on him.
Even in his first book, De laatste dictatuur (The Last Dictatorship) from 1992, Devillé was critical of the Church. The book was banned by Cardinal Danneels, but this served only to draw more attention to it. ‘After that, people approached me with a desire to tell me something about the sexual abuse they had experienced. At the time, I thought they were only a few exceptions, but they kept coming. Today, we have more than 1,300 reports’, recounts Devillé.
People with a lot of power don’t have to bother with how other people think, feel and experience.
Several years after the sexual abuse committed by Bishop Roger Vangheluwe came to light, Vangheluwe gave a surreal interview from his retreat in France, in which he mused about the ‘secret relationship’ he had maintained with his underage nephew. ‘That scene proves that the perpetrators are completely unaware of what they are doing’, responds Devillé. ‘They think nothing is wrong, have no concept of what it means to be a human being, let alone a child. Their abuse is an egocentric, selfish experience of lust. It also has to do with power. People with a lot of power don’t have to bother with how other people think, feel and experience.’
No end in sight
We ask how he can live with himself and stay positive amidst so much misery. ‘Against my better judgement, I keep thinking it’s about the last one’, he continues. ‘I would like to see it come to an end.’ Devillé refers to the book Trauma and Recovery by the American therapist Judith Herman. ‘This book taught me that 60% of all psychiatric services would be empty if there were no child abuse, and that a single perpetrator claims an average between 30 and 50 victims.’
What can the Church and government do to ensure that victims get the recognition they deserve? ‘It would be nice to give those who were treated like black sheep for years an honourable welcome and let them tell their stories’, recounts Devillé.
He also finds the whole history of sexual abuse a wake-up call for his own profession of faith. He is grateful for that, because according to him, a society must be cautious about blindly following a dictatorship. How does he profess his faith? ‘In the morning, I open my computer to see what questions have come in. I try to be present for the questions in a humane way, to empathise and get to work on them. There are human beings in front of me, and I listen to them, without bias. That’s what it’s all about for me.’
On 28 March, Rik Devillé received an honorary doctorate from our university. ‘I break out in sweat every time I think about it’, he describes. ‘I do feel honoured, but I’ve not yet dared to say that to anyone. It’s beyond my comprehension.’
In my opinion, this chain of violence can be broken only if there is proper care. There should be more humanity.
Finally, he calls for more caring and humanity. ‘My wish is for us to live in a country where the existing structures take care of people in need. Within the group of victims, there are also those who become perpetrators. In my opinion, this chain of violence can be broken only if there is proper care. There should be more humanity. The word “love” is so easy to say, but it’s also necessary to keep saying it.’
And what about the finances? Should we still sponsor the Church? After Godvergeten, the subsidies from the government to the Catholic faith have once again come under discussion. Doctor of Philosophy and educational supervisor Leni Franken (Centre Pieter Gillis) wrote a book entitled Geld voor je God? De financiering van levensbeschouwingen in België (Money for your God? The funding of Ideologies in Belgium).
Every Belgian taxpayer — religious or not — contributes to subsidising state-recognised ideologies. Both the salaries and pensions of a recognised worship or non-denominational ideology are paid from the federal budget. This arrangement has been enshrined in our constitution since the founding of Belgium. Nevertheless, the distribution of all those salaries and pensions is neither transparent nor fair. Franken notes, ‘For example, a moral consultant of the liberal humanists earns more than a Roman Catholic parish priest, but the latter is allowed to accumulate a variety of tasks.’ Some are entitled to housing or housing allowance, and others are not. Franken sheds some light on the confusion.
The money that goes to the Catholic Church is still based on the notion that Belgium is a Catholic country.
‘The money that goes to the Catholic Church is still based on the notion that Belgium is a Catholic country. The number of subsidised places for ministers of the Catholic Church is determined primarily by the number of inhabitants per parish (including Muslims and atheists living within the parish area), and not by the number of people who are baptised or who actually profess the faith. Numerous recognised ideologies have been added since Belgium was established, but for them, the estimated number of members is usually considered, despite the fact that the figures are vague.’
Other countries are doing better
‘According to my French-speaking colleague Jean-François Husson, the figure for 2022 was €281.7 million, with 75% going to the Catholic Church. The remaining 25% is shared amongst the other recognised religions and ideologies: the Orthodox Church, the Anglican Church, Protestant Evangelical Worship, Islam, Judaism and liberal humanism, which, at 15%, also gets a big slice of the pie’, notes Franken. ‘To be clear, this does not include the cost of religious education. If we’re to count those costs, the amount would be substantially higher.’
Since the 1960s, there has obviously been a process of secularisation as well. Is it still appropriate for the State to sponsor religions in this way? ‘Other countries have proven that things can be different’, observes Franken. ‘In Italy, citizens are asked in the tax note which religion they would like to support financially. The subsidies are subsequently distributed according to those preferences.’
In the Netherlands, which had a system similar to the one in Belgium, the State stopped recognising and directly funding religions in 1983. The faithful largely sponsor their faiths themselves. If there are shortfalls, faith communities can still appeal to the municipality. ‘According to a number of sociologists and economists, extensive subsidies lead to laziness’, explains Franken. ‘As things are now, a priest doesn’t have to try very hard to write a good sermon, because he will get paid anyway. If that were not the case, however, the priest would have to do his best and be innovative in order to ensure that the church is full.’
Other sources of meaning
Franks thinks it would be best to take the church-funding system out of the Constitution. ‘We need to recognise that people can find meaning in different ways. They can do this within traditional religions, but also through music, art or sports. Just as the funding of music schools and events is not established in the Constitution, so could it be with the funding of religions and ideologies. This would free up a pool of money and place religion on a par with all those other sources of meaning in terms of subsidies.’
According to a number of sociologists and economists, extensive subsidies lead to laziness. As things are now, a priest doesn’t have to try very hard to write a good sermon, because he will get paid anyway.
About problematic sexual behaviour within an institution, we would do best to look within our own ranks. In the European project ‘Uni4Equity’, PhD student Sofie Avery (Faculty of Arts) is studying how universities can cope with transgressive behaviour.
‘The Church is superior to everyone’, states one of the witnesses in Godvergeten. According to Avery, this superiority is also a risk factor for abuse. ‘In the Church, there is also a metaphysical layer. There is not much that we can contribute against divine superiority. At a university, there is intellectual exaltation. The institution where you work gives you a certain authority.’
Only a target?
Could an institution’s hierarchical structure also have an impact? ‘That is indeed possible, including in a kind of mentorship, for example, where you follow in someone’s footsteps. It is sometimes hard for victims to reconcile that someone they look up to has crossed their boundaries. In pedagogical relationships (as occur in an educational institution), people sometimes feel afterwards that they are worth less intellectually. They suddenly feel objectified. “Do I really have intellectual qualities, or was I only a target?”’
Competition and mutual rivalry are also risk factors. ‘When places are scarce and people go overboard to get a position, it does not invite a collegial, helpful or caring atmosphere.’ She elaborates on the working field of academics. ‘The criteria for advancement are highly focused on how much you publish. Less consideration is given to aspects like services, teaching and leadership style.’
It is sometimes hard for victims to reconcile that someone they look up to has crossed their boundaries.
It is Avery’s job to be critical of the system of which she is part. Does she sometimes have trouble with this paradox? ‘To me, it’s a nice position. Identifying problems is an act of love. I’m convinced that things can be better, but that certain frameworks are still missing.’ She passes on tools from Marijke Naezer, who conducted research on problematic sexual behaviour at Dutch universities. ‘Naezer suggests that holding the person accountable for the behaviour is a first step, but that it would also be best for the university to launch its own investigation into similar experiences — and to reflect on how this could have happened. Finally, there also needs to be an action plan that prevents the behaviour from recurring and that works towards recovery.’
The University of Antwerp has an internal reporting system with counselors and a student mediator, and Mensura as an external reporting point when it concerns staff members. Avery strongly advocates external reporting points for inappropriate behavior. ‘People who are part of an organisation are less able to view things from a distance. We also don’t want to put people in the position of having to judge someone they know. My advice to institutions is to make use of all the external expertise available. It seems to me that it would also feel good to hand over ultimate responsibility. It has recently become possible to report problematic behaviour to the Flemish hotline. It remains to be seen how these reports will be treated, but it already seems like a step in the right direction.’
How has Godvergeten affected young believers? Xenia Geysemans works in Pastoral Care at UAntwerp, where she in daily interaction with students of faith.
‘Young people often come to us for a free coffee. They want to talk, or they come here to study’, explains Geysemans. Her audience consists primarily of Catholic or Protestant-inspired believers, but it also includes Muslims and non-religious students. ‘Religious or spiritual bricolage — “reli-shopping” — is hot amongst young people’, she adds, ‘we see that they’re also delving into Wicca, yoga, mindfulness or Buddhism.’
Geysemans has seen only the first episode of Godvergeten. ‘It pains me to be part of this institution, but it doesn’t diminish my faith. Whilst the Church may be the shell, for me, it’s all about the core: the mystery of Christ and the love that goes along with it.’ She notes that the topic has subsequently surfaced in informal conversations. ‘A great deal of dissatisfaction and anger is expressed, but there is active reflection as well. Is this abuse due to the power structures that are so inherent in the Church? How can we dismantle clericalism? Or is celibacy ultimately the main culprit? To what extent should the Church modernise without losing its authenticity?’
Has the series had an impact on the faith experiences of her students? Geysemans does not think that it has for students who ‘consciously choose Catholicism. Among fringe churchgoers or “passive members”, the impact is greater. They already had no strong connection to the faith, and this connection is now becoming even weaker, resulting in de-baptisms.’
Religious or spiritual bricolage — “reli-shopping” — is hot amongst young people.
Problematic behaviour is a topic that is addressed by Pastoral Care at the University of Antwerp. ‘In one-to-one interviews with students, we also hear snippets of sexual abuse, physical and psychological abuse, toxic relationships and alcohol abuse. Although we haven’t yet organised a lecture series specifically on the topic of sexual abuse, we have addressed topics like #metoo activism and toxic masculinity. Students can always come to us with questions about this.’