Belgium: Amid sex scandals, de-baptism gains favor

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BRUSSELS, Belgium — Faced with ever-more harrowing revelations of child sex abuse by Roman Catholic clergymen, Belgians are turning in record numbers to apostasy — formally breaking with their religion through a process of “de-baptism.”

“It has increased enormously since the cases of child abuse. It keeps going up,” said Bjorn Siffer, deputy director of Flemish Humanist-Secular Society. “We know from the bishops' secretaries that they can’t cope with all the requests they are getting for de-baptism.”

Siffer says 80 people ditched Catholicism during a single “de-baptism day” in Antwerp in June and a similar number dropped out of the Church in an event earlier this year in the western city of Kortrijk.

A secular organization in Belgium’s French-speaking south says 869 people have used its help to sever links with the Church so far this year, compared to 380 for the whole of 2009, and just 66 two years ago.

"The pedophilia cases play a part, but it’s more that people have had enough of the positions which the Catholic Church has taken on issues like abortion, contraception and homosexuality," said Daniel Leclerq, a coordinator at the Federation of Friends of Secular Morality. 

Leclerq said many people were also influenced to leave the church because of the decision by Pope Benedict XVI last year to lift the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson, who has described Jews as enemies of the Church and denied the existence of the Nazi gas chambers.

Belgium was shaken by the revelation in April that the Bishop of Bruges Roger Vanhegheluwe, one of the country’s best-known clergymen, had sexually abused his own nephew for 13 years, starting when the boy was just 5 years old.

The country was further shocked over the weekend when a Church inquiry commission published the often graphic testimony of hundreds of people who stepped forward to say they had been abused by priests in their youth.

“None of us was prepared for the severity of some of the accounts of abuse that we were given,”said Peter Adriaenssens, the child psychiatrist who headed the inquiry. “All of us at one time questioned our faith in God, the Church and humanity.”

Widespread suspicions that the Church authorities covered up such crimes intensified after newspapers last month published transcripts of meetings between Vanhegheluwe’s victim and Cardinal Godfried Danneels. Texts show the former head of the Church in Belgium trying to persuade the man, now in his 40s, to hold off on going public with his accusations.

The Catholic hierarchy has hit back, claiming the papers edited the text to carry out a “character assassination”of the cardinal and denouncing police searches of Danneel’s home and other Church properties. However, there’s no doubt that many Belgians have had their faith severely dented.

“With these cases of pedophilia, the Catholic Church no longer enjoys the same esteem among many people,” Cannon Herman Cosijns, episcopal vicar of the Brussels diocese, told French television last month. “It will come back, but this is a difficult time.”

The secular organizations deny that they are taking advantage of the child sex scandals to encourage people to leave the Catholic Church or any other religion. But they do make it easier by offering downloadable forms on their websites. Once the forms are filled in and returned, the organizations will send them on to Church authorities who will strike the apostates off the baptismal register.

Those who end their affiliation with the Church are no longer excommunicated, but they cannot be married in the church or have a Catholic funeral.

This nation of 10 million remains a mainly Catholic country, but the Church’s influence is declining. The Flemish Christian Democratic party’s defeat in 1999 elections ended generations of its political domination in the Dutch-speaking north. Since then, the country became a pioneer in legalizing same-sex marriages and euthanasia.

A poll released in January found 60 percent described themselves as Catholics, compared to 72 percent in 1980 and 68 percent in 2000. The number of practicing Catholics declined from 46 percent in 1980 to 14 percent this year, according to the poll in the daily Le Soir newspaper.

While there are countless lapsed Catholics, those who officially renounce the religion are a small but growing minority. Eric Lorio is one who decided to take that extra step.

“I left the Catholic religion years ago when I was a young adult and became an atheist, but last year I found out that the Church still considered me as one of theirs, and I wanted to be taken off their lists,”said the Brussels-based psychologist and management coach.

“I found the points of view of the Catholic Church had become more and more conservative, hostile to certain lifestyles and I decided to pull out,”added Lorio, who has set up his own website to promote discussion on the issue.

Christine Mironzcyk decided she would formally abandon the faith of her Polish immigrant parents after she became a grandmother. 

“My son was never baptized and neither is my granddaughter, so I thought it was time to join them,”said Mironzcyk, who is president of the Federation of Friends of Secular Morality. “It’s a very personal action, a very powerful act … I’m glad to have done it.”

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