Former archbishop Godfried Danneels dies at 85

Summary

The archbishop of Belgium for nearly 30 years, Godfried Danneels was highly respected but racked with church abuse scandal following his retirement

‘He suffered in silence’

Cardinal Godfried Danneels, who served as archbishop of Belgium for 30 years, had died. He was 85.

Serving the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels, which governs the whole of Belgium, from 1980 to 2009, Danneels was long the face of Catholicism in the country. He was highly regarded in the Catholic church and bestowed the title of cardinal in 1983.

He was in fact tipped to become pope in 2005, following the death of Johannes Paulus II. But his reputation as progressive did not sit well with everyone in the Vatican. Although he never considered himself progressive, he was a proponent of church reform and was actively involved in protection of liberation theologists in Latin America.

In 2004, Danneels also made waves in the Catholic community by saying that people who were HIV-positive should use condoms, an affront to both the church’s official stance on birth control and gay sex.

The global Catholic community was also distrustful of the archbishop of the second country in the world to legalise euthanasia and where a Catholic university such as Leuven conducted research using stem cells. The Vatican’s official newspaper once referred to Danneels as “the grave digger of the Belgian church”.

Abuse scandal

While the people of Belgium had no such qualms about Danneels, he did face his first criticism in the late 1990s when he and bishop Paul Lanneau were ordered to pay 500,000 francs in damages to victims of childhood sexual abuse. The court found that both men were aware of allegations of abuse by took no action.

Ten years later, he was again accused of covering up allegations against Bruges bishop Roger Vangheluwe, who resigned when his nephew went public with stories of years of sexual abuse. Danneels was still active within the church, maintaining an office at the cathedral in Mechelen. The Vangheluwe case led to hundreds of victims coming forward, a major court case and an investigation that included a search of Danneels’ home and office.

Damning evidence made it clear that he wanted the entire issue to blow over until Vangheluwe could simply retire. “That weighed heavily on him,” said current archbishop Jozef De Kesel. “He didn’t have the temperament to pull himself together, to counter it. He suffered very much from this, in silence.”

Photo: Nicolas Maeterlinck/BELGA