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Advocate for the Church’s Victims

by Petra de Koning

While the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy in Belgium looked away, one former priest listened to sexual abuse victims. The efforts and patience of Rik Devillé have lead to formal inquiries and recognition for the victims. “I do this because there is always someone who calls me with a story.”

Advocate for the Church’s Victims Until last spring most Belgians were convinced their country would never be hit by the stream of news stories about the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic church, which was engulfing Ireland, the United States and the Netherlands. The Belgians had endured their own scandals. After the arrest of Marc Dutroux, who had kidnapped, raped and killed numerous girls during the 1990s, there had been stories about priests abusing children. But that would be it, right?

Rik Devillé, who used to be a priest in the Flemish village Buizingen, heard his fellow countrymen saying this on television. He knew better. Hundreds of sexual abuse victims had contacted him since 1992. Devillé (66) had published a critical book on the church, The Last Dictatorship. Then people had started calling him and telling him their stories. He founded a group, Human Rights in the Church, and visited Belgian bishops to share these stories.

Destroying the Church
Usually he was turned away. Cardinal Godfried Danneels, the arch bishop of Belgium until 2010, did receive him. But Devillé always had the impression he simply would not hear what Devillé and the victims told him. The cardinal said he would pray for the victims. And by the way, why did they not come to him directly? Why did they come with Devillé? Devillé, Danneels said, was destroying the church.

Devillé lost hope that one day the church would stop turning a deaf ear to the victims’s stories.

In the spring of 2010 everything changed. The bishop of Bruges admitted that he had abused his nephew for years. From then on a special commission, lead by a child psychiatrist, received about 500 complaints. A parliamentary committee was established, and started to investigate sexual abuse in the church. Bishops testified in parliament. Again and again his name was mentioned: Rik Devillé. The bishops were always asked what they had done with the dossiers he had presented. Devillé sat in the public gallery and listened.

Were you satisfied?
“Every little bit helps. And the parliamentary committee is more then a little bit. It is a serious step forward. For the first time bishops are being called to account. But the committee is not an official inquiry. The members can’t hear people under oath. There are policemen who can’t tell their story for that reason.
“It is hard to feel satisfied when the bishops keep denying they knew the stories. You realise they don’t really care. That’s hard to bear for the victims. I have learned that it helps people if one sympathises.”

Parliamentary Committee
Just before last summer the police confiscated all the sexual abuse dossiers in possession of the bishops and the commission. The commission stopped its work, but published a report with stories from victims. Devillé pleaded for a parliamentary inquiry on the steps of a cathedral in Brussels. Many journalists were present.

Would the parliamentary committee have been established without your efforts?
“I would like to know the answer, too. On the steps of the cathedral, that day, it was make or break.”

Did you have doubts over the past years about whether to continue or not?
“No. I did feel discouraged at times, when there was no progress whatsoever. We were pushed into a corner and accused of not being credible. The cardinal and some bishops were sending me letters asking me to stop.”

Has there ever been a bishop who surprised you?
“The bishop of Gent, Bishop Luysterman. He was willing to listen to us and sometimes he really made an effort for the victims.”

Did the stories and the reactions from the church damage your faith in God?
“For me these are two completely different things. You can easily establish a lively community of faith without Rome. It is actually the institution, Rome, that distracts from what really matters. It draws attention to the structures of power rather then to your fellow creatures, which is really the main message of the Gospel.”

And is that what makes you try to help the victims?
“I don’t know. I do this because there is always someone who calls me with a story. And then I do it to get rid of the story as soon as possible. It has to be done, otherwise it will never stop for these people. I always kept in mind: Tomorrow it can be over. That is just a feeling. I know it’s not realistic. But this is not my mission. I prefer doing other things.”

Your efforts have made you famous in Belgium. Do you enjoy all the attention?
“If it means there is recognition, if is it connected to the goal we have in mind, then yes. It’s the recognition that is important.”

Have you made any mistakes over the years?
“I’m quite sure. So far I have 425 dossiers. I trust the experts who say that about 5 % of these have to be false. But except for one story I haven’t see a dossier which I think is false. I feel that I can judge quite well how people tell their stories and how real they are. If I have any doubts I ask them to make it more concrete. I don’t accept anything like: There is something wrong with this or that priest.”

How do you see the future?
“I’ll wait for the results of the parliamentary committee. I hope they will announce an official inquiry, hearing witnesses under oath. We will have to lobby for it. I would very much like to get rid of the dossiers. This is not my hobby. I would like to see that victims feel respected and say they are being helped.”


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Geachte mevr. De Koning,
Wat schitterend van u om Rik Devillé de tribune te geven die hij verdient, terwijl hij in de Belgische pers zo goed als doodgezwegen wordt. Tenzij die pers denkt iets over Rik te moeten insinueren of liegen natuurlijk, dan is ze gretig.
Zijn tegenstanders daarentegen krijgen haast elke wind die ze laten gepubliceerd, vooral dan in de kranten en boekjes zich met graagte tegen de kerk aanschurken. Weten die niet dat de aflaten voor diensten aan de kerk al lang geleden werden afgeschaft? Of brengt het hen ander voordeel op?
U geeft mij een boost om met nog meer ijver mijn kleine steentje bij te dragen aan de werking van de Werkgroep Mensenrechten in de Kerk.
Met bijzondere hoogachting,
Suus Kuppens

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Petra de Koning

Petra de Koning

Petra de Koning is Brussels correspondent for Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad where she earlier worked as a general reporter and political editor. She has completed a Liberal Arts degree and post graduate studies in journalism in Rotterdam.


"I don’t see One11 as being about “good news”. The site presents stories about people who refuse to give up. Belgian priest Rik Devillé would much rather be writing poetry, but he’s had very little time for creativity over the past 20 years. He listens to victims of sexual abuse and tries to convince others in his church to do the same.”