BRUSSELS — Belgium's Catholic Church announced Thursday that priests and clergy who abused children will be required to pay damages, even when victims make their claims after the country's statute of limitations has expired.
The church — in an overall response on how to deal with the abuse scandals that have enveloped it — urged victims to initially take their cases to civil authorities.
But it also said it was willing to impose penalties ranging from apologies to financial compensation, both for recent cases and for those so old they can no longer be brought to court. Over the past two years, more than 500 witnesses have come forward with accounts of molestation by Catholic clergy in Belgium, spanning several decades.
"If the culprit is still alive, he will certainly have to pay," Bishop Guy Harpigny said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The culprits "may say civil authorities have told them the statute of limitations has expired, but we will say 'you have to pay,'" Harpigny said. "They have committed evil. They are responsible and we will try to make them pay."
He added that if individual priests were unable to pay, the church itself would compensate. The Belgian church, however, has not offered any figures regarding potential compensation.
The Vatican is the sole decider of whether to defrock priests.
In Belgian cases, however, Harpigny said in all instances of reports of serious pedophile cases being sent to Rome, the Vatican left the decision of leaving the priesthood to the pedophile priests themselves. So the options of the Belgian church have been limited.
If the guilty "no longer want to be priests, then we will say yes. (But) the priest has to ask'," he said of the Vatican's response.
For years, victims organizations have complained that church hierarchy had ignored their pleas and protected abusive priests by moving them from parish to parish instead of punishing them.
Prof. Manu Keirse, who helped the church write "Toward an overall approach of sexual abuse in the Church" in close cooperation with the bishops, said it was "not a good attitude to let everything depend on the priest."
The Vatican was far too aloof and "infinitely slow," he told the AP, moments after presenting the Belgian policy text with Harpigny.
"Do I really trust the policies of Rome?" Keirse asked. "No, in fact, I don't. I have more trust in the intentions of the Belgian church."
The Vatican has long been accused by abuse victims and bishops themselves of dragging its feet when it comes to dealing with pedophile priests: American bishops in the 1980s begged the Vatican to let them laicize pedophiles without cumbersome and time-consuming church trials, but Rome refused.
Irish bishops in the 1990s proposed reporting molester priests to police but the Vatican came back with a warning that doing so posed serious canonical problems.
Belgium's abuse scandal broke two years ago when former bishop Roger Vangheluwe admitted to the sexual abuse of two nephews, including 13 years of abuse of one which started at age 5.
Vangheluwe said last year he had fully realized what he did was wrong, and often went to confession about it. The 75-year-old Vangheluwe resigned in 2010, just as the sex abuse scandal was spreading across Europe.
Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this story