As damaging secret tapes emerge, Belgian Cardinal says he was 'naive' to meet sex abuse victim

BRUSSELS (AP) — The former head of Belgium's Roman Catholic Church has acknowledged that he should not have held a meeting with a victim of serial sexual abuse and suggested a cover up until the offending bishop retired.

The April 8 meeting that retired Cardinal Godfried Danneels held was secretly taped by the victim and the conversation was published in two newspapers over the weekend.

Since the tapes' publication, Danneels, 77, has faced fierce criticism for his suggestion that the sexual abuse be kept secret and that the victim should consider forgiving the bishop, his uncle, as part of seeking closure.

"He realizes that the whole approach, as it was, was not the right one," Danneels spokesman, Toon Osaer, told The Associated Press on Monday. Osaer said Danneels was unprepared for the meeting. "It was improvisation."

On Monday, La Libre newspaper, long a staunch ally of the church, joined the chorus of Danneels' critics.

In a commentary, it said Danneels' behavior shows how long "the law of silence" was "the only response of the Catholic hierarchy" to sex abuse cases. "The absolute priority remained the preservation of the image of the institution and the honor of its members."

Two weeks after the April 8 conversation, 73-year-old Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of Bruges, Belgium, resigned, expressing sorrow for having long abused his nephew, both as a priest and after becoming a bishop more than 20 years ago.

Danneels said he only knew a few days ahead of the meeting of the bishop's abuse, which ended more than two decades ago. "At a certain point, he let himself be persuaded by Monsignor Vangheluwe to take part in such a meeting," Osaer said. Monsignor is the courtesy title that bishops use.

"Looking back I have been naive by going to such a meeting unprepared," Osaer quoted Danneels as saying. But Danneels also said he regretted that the confidential meeting was made public by the victim, who is now 42 years old.

In the conversation that the victim secretly taped, Danneels said: "In fact, the monsignor steps down next year. It would be better that you wait" to go public. He then suggested measures about how to keep it quiet.

Later Danneels said, "I don't know whether it would be to your advantage to make a lot of noise about it. Neither for you, nor for him." He also urged the victim to simply forgive his uncle for the 13 years of abuse.

Osaer said that the transcript was "in no way" in doubt, but he added it was not complete to give a more nuanced idea of the meeting. "It is not correct to say that Danneels implied — let's give forgiveness and that's it," Osaer said.

Danneels' successor, Archbishop Andre-Mutien Leonard, has said from the outset of his tenure in January he would not cover up any cases of abuse.

On Monday, his spokesman Jurgen Mettepenningen said the church was preparing a new initiative to deal with the sex abuse issue, which should be ready by the middle of September.