Hundreds of sex abuse victims have come forward in Belgium with harrowing accounts of molestation by Catholic clergy that reportedly led to at least 13 suicides and affected children as young as two, an independent Belgian commission said Friday.
Prof. Peter Adriaenssens, chair of the commission, said the abuse in Belgium may have been even more rampant than the 200-page report suggests, because his panel's work was interrupted and all its files seized in a June 24 raid by Belgian judicial authorities who are conducting their own probe.
Adriaenssens, a child psychiatrist who has worked with trauma victims for 23 years, said nothing had prepared him for the stories of abuse that blighted the lives of victims. He called the report's findings "a body blow" to the Roman Catholic Church in Belgium.
Belgian church authorities said they would react on Monday to the report. The Vatican had no immediate comment.
The report's findings are the latest embarrassment for Belgium's Catholic Church, which is still reeling after the April resignation of Bruges Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, who admitted to having sexually abused a nephew for years when he was a priest and bishop.
Friday's report lists 507 witnesses who came forward with stories of molestation at the hands of clergy over the past decades. It says those abused included children who were two, four, five and six years old.
Family members or friends said 13 victims committed suicide, which "was related to sexual abuse by clergy," the report said. Six other witnesses said they had attempted suicide.
"It is notable how often one issue comes back in the witness reports: the high number of suicides," the report said.
The number of those coming forward with their stories and testimonies, however, could be only a fraction of those actually abused, Adriaenssens said. He added that many priests co-operated with the panel, which was founded by Belgian bishops and had the support of the church there but worked independently.
"We saw how priests, called up by the commission and asked to help seek the truth, were willing to set up the list of 10, 15, 20 victims they abused during boarding school while the commission knew only of one," he said.
Belgian Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard, who was appointed earlier this year, said he will come forward with a new initiative Monday on how to deal with cases of abuse, prevent further abuse and help victims seek closure.
His spokesman, Jurgen Mettepenningen, said the archbishop didn't comment Friday so as not to distract attention from the report's contents.
Leonard's predecessor, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, acknowledged Wednesday that damage control often took precedence in Belgium over concerns for victims in sexual abuse cases involving clergy.
The crisis in the Belgian church was exacerbated last month, when secret tapes were published of Danneels speaking with the man whom Vangheluwe abused and suggesting a cover-up until Vangheluwe was to retire in 2011. Danneels said Wednesday he should have asked Vangheluwe to resign immediately.