VATICAN CITY — The Vatican is using its new rules to crack down on sexual abuse by high-ranking churchmen, revealing that it has ordered a Belgian bishop to no longer work as a priest while officials determine his punishment.

Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, 74, admitted abusing his nephew and resigned a year ago, just as the sex abuse scandal was spreading across Europe and the Vatican was revising the way it handled prosecutions of bishops and other top officials.

Over the weekend, Belgian bishops reported that Van-gheluwe had merely been sent outside the country for spiritual and psychological counseling, a seemingly cushy measure given the seriousness of the crime.

In a statement responding to Associated Press queries, the Vatican clarified Tuesday that Vangheluwe is being sanctioned, including not being allowed to work as a priest or bishop.

Pope Benedict XVI will eventually decide his fate. Benedict will base a punishment on the diagnosis and prognosis of Vangheluwe’s treatment, and on “the suffering of the victims and the need for justice,” the Vatican said.

Vangheluwe is still technically a priest, though he is not allowed to celebrate Mass publicly. Among the possible punishments that Benedict can issue is to remove him from the priesthood altogether.

The move against him comes at a time when high-ranking church officials elsewhere are facing increased scrutiny from criminal prosecutors, including a monsignor in Philadelphia and a bishop in Ottawa on sex-related charges. Both could land in prison.

A research organization that documents the Catholic sex abuse crisis said the Vatican’s order against the Belgian bishop was “long overdue and minimal” and that Vangheluwe should have been thrown out of the priesthood long ago.

“And yet the Vatican’s action is notable as one of the few times that it has publicly disciplined a high-ranking church official for child sex crimes,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org.

Belgian prosecutors haven’t pressed charges against Vangheluwe. The Vatican said it took action even though its own statute of limitations had expired.

Sex abuse victims accuse the church of letting off the hook bishops who molested minors or helped cover for priests who did.

Last May, the church revised its rules to enable its chief enforcer, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to prosecute bishops and cardinals, not just priests.

In the past, the pope would delegate the cases of bishops who committed canonical crimes to various Vatican offices or the Roman Rota, a Vatican court.

Vangheluwe, Belgium’s longest-serving bishop, admitted he had abused a boy for years as a priest and even after becoming a bishop in 1984.

It later was established that the victim, now in his early 40s, was his nephew.

The revision of the church’s sex abuse norms came as the sex abuse scandal exploded.

Thousands of people came forward in Europe and elsewhere with reports of priests who had abused them, bishops who covered up for them and Vatican officials who ignored the crimes for decades.

 


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