Via Rorate Caeli, here’s the story of Father Tom Flamez, convicted of child molestation five years ago, and now reassigned to a parish by his bishop. The Flemish-language media are calling him the “Pedopriester.” From a statement by the pedopriester’s bishop, justifying his appointment:
“For a period of five years, Tom Flamez was permanently monitored by the house of justice in Courtrai. Even during this time the probation commission had no objections to an eventual appointment as parish priest. Unlike the reporting of some media he never violated the probationary conditions. In January of 2014 the commission of the court of Courtrai decided that the trial period could be ended. Until this day Tom Flamez is sustainably and professionally supervised.”
In the meanwhile I have also presented this file to a higher ecclesial authority. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith agreed with an eventual appointment, starting on 15 January 2014. Tom Flamez has been working on occasion in the parish of Middelkerke since September of 2011. His work there was positively evaluated. All this led me to decide, after consulting the diocesan council, to appoint Tom Flamez as parish priest in the federation of Middelkerke. Convinced that everyone who has shown to be able deserves a second chance, I hope that Tom Flamez will be given the opportunity to properly fulfill the duties entrusted to him.”
The CDF signed off on this? I’d love to know why.
Pope Francis held his first meeting with victims of clerical sex abuse on Monday, pledging to carry forward the fight against the scandals that have rocked Catholicism for more than a decade.
“I commit myself not to tolerate harm done to a minor by any individual, whether a cleric or not,” the pontiff said.
Francis also pledged that any bishop who fails in his responsibility to protect minors “will be held accountable.”
Victims groups have criticized the pope for waiting 16 months after his election to hold a meeting, and branded the move a publicity stunt.
“Over the past 2,000 years, two popes have met with about two dozen clergy sex abuse victims. Very little has changed,” Mary Caplan, a leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said.
“A dozen popes could meet with 100 victims, and very little will change. These meetings are public relations coups for the Vatican and a distracting placebo for others.”
Lombardi [the Vatican spokesman] insisted it was more than a photo-op.
“There’s a body of opinion that has never been interested on understanding the Church’s intention with these meetings,” he said. “Those who understand, see and listen to what the pope did and said today, will know without a doubt that it wasn’t a public relations event.”
It was, alas, a public relations event.
The news isn’t all bad. The Dutch Catholic blog In Caelo et In Terra reports subsequently:
Yesterday it turned out that the careful process followed by the bishop – consulting both his diocesan council and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before appointing Fr. Flamez – was not as careful as it seemed. He forgot one all-important group: the victims of sexual abuse by clergy. And it was Fr. Flamez himself who made the best call possible in not accepting the appointment as parish priest of Middelkerke. A statement published yesterday says that the bishop realises that the appointment hurt the victims of sexual abuse, and that that was never his intention. Which begs the question: why did he not realise this beforehand?
The Belgian bishops use certain guidelines when dealing with clergy who have been found guilty of sexual abuse of minors. One of these is that they can never be allowed to work with children and young people again. The position of parish priest does entail working with people of all ages, including youth and children.
We can’t know what the exact motivation was for Fr. Flamez’ decision not to accept the appointment. Was it the questions in the media which made his position untenable, or perhaps a realisation that this was not the sort of duty he could take up considering his past mistakes? Yesterday’s statement only mentions “given circumstances”, which is as vague as it gets.
All in all, this whole situation, despite the apparent care expressed in certain areas, gives the impression of carelessness. The victims, be they of the priest in question or of other clergy, can not be ignored. The Church is under scrutiny in this area, and may well serve as an example to other institutions. But not when things like this happen.
So it fell to the convicted molester priest — not the Vatican, and not the local bishop — to make the morally and pastorally responsible decision here. What could the mitigating circumstances in Flamez’s case be, such that the CDF signed off on this? The criminal court found him guilty but did not impose a punishment, outside of supervision. But he was still found guilty in criminal court. Given the catastrophe giving sex abusing clergy have brought to the Catholic Church, it beggars belief that anybody in the hierarchy would err on the side of giving molester priests second chances in the ministry.
I firmly believe that no matter what they say, you cannot trust the hierarchy on these matters. You just can’t. The auto-destruction of the Catholic Church’s moral authority continues.
UPDATE: It’s much worse than I thought. The Flemish daily De Morgen reports that Fr. Flamez got in trouble while serving as a teacher in a school. An astonishing 195 students there testified that he had loose sexual morals, and was always making sexual remarks to them. He got a 16 year old boy drunk and began groping him; that’s what he was sentenced by the court for. Also:
During a search, the investigators found a stack of photos, which showed that students slept with him. In 2009, the priest was given suspended sentences and five years of probation. Now he’s back in Middelkerke as a pastor appointed by Bruges Bishop Jozef De Kessel, who maintains that he deserves a second chance.
The priest’s lawyer points out that his client’s conviction was voided in exchange for his undergoing counseling and five years of supervised probation. Perhaps the lack of a formal conviction is why the CDF approved his reassignment. If so, that kind of legalism is spectacularly idiotic.
More about Flamez, from De Morgen. It turns out that after his trial, the then-Bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, appointed him curate in a small town, where he conducted catechism lessons for 12 year olds. In 2010, he was caught in an online scandal when he tried to hook up online with a 13 year old in his parish, and forced out of that assignment. Flamez was given an administrative job within the church, but an unnamed inside source tells De Morgen that he continued leading pilgrimages and doing pastoral work, including marrying people.
And what of Bishop Vangheluwe? Well, he resigned in 2010 after admitting to molesting his own nephew for 13 years. The victim, realizing the character of the men he was dealing with, took a hidden tape recorder into a meeting with Vangheluwe and Cardinal Danneels, then the archbishop of Brussels. From the New York Times:
The former leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Belgium urged a victim of serial sexual abuse by a bishop to keep silent for a year, until the bishop — the victim’s own uncle — could retire, according to tapes made by the victim last April and published over the weekend in two Belgian newspapers.
The tapes, which church authorities have verified as accurate, are among the more revealing documents in the continuing scandal of sexual abuse by clerics and subsequent cover-ups by the church. And having a record of a cardinal entreating an abuse victim to keep his silence is another embarrassment for the Catholic Church.
Cardinal Godfried Danneels, 77, who retired as the archbishop of Brussels in January after 30 years, met with the victim, now 42, and his uncle, Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, 73, on April 8 to press the victim either to accept a private apology or to wait until the bishop retired, according to the tapes.
“The bishop will resign next year, so actually it would be better for you to wait,” the cardinal told the victim. “I don’t think you’d do yourself or him a favor by shouting this from the rooftops.” The cardinal warned the victim against trying to blackmail the church and suggested that he accept a private apology from the bishop and not drag “his name through the mud.”
The victim responded, “He has dragged my whole life through the mud, from 5 until 18 years old,” and asked, “Why do you feel sorry for him and not for me?”
Danneels was recorded on that tape saying — in front of Vangheluwe’s victim — that he admired Bishop Vangheluwe for the way he was bearing his “suffering.”
Vangheluwe retired to a Belgian monastery, but later went elsewhere. Who drove the car that took him away from the monastery? Father Tom Flamez. Most recently, Cardinal Danneels was in the news serving as one of Pope Francis’s appointments to the Synod on the family.