The Vatican on Tuesday clarified the punishment against the former Bruges Bishop Roger Vangheluwe after Belgian bishops reported over the weekend that he had merely been sent outside Belgium for spiritual and psychological counseling.
The decision was the first known application of the Vatican's new sex abuse norms approved last year giving the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith jurisdiction to investigate and punish bishops and cardinals who abuse minors, with possible defrocking as the ultimate penalty.
The Vatican has long been accused by sex abuse victims of having let bishops off the hook, despite having abused minors, or helping to cover up the crimes of their priests who did. The change in the norms was designed at least in theory to let the Congregation more easily go after abusive bishops.
The pope has the final say on Vangheluwe's punishment. In a statement, the Vatican's press office said Pope Benedict XVI would eventually decide on a sentence based on Vangheluwe's diagnosis and prognosis from psychological treatment he is receiving, and also take into account "the suffering of the victims and the need for justice."
Vangheluwe resigned a year ago this month as Belgium's longest-serving bishop after admitting he had abused a young boy for years as a priest and even after becoming a bishop in 1984. It later was established that the victim was his nephew.
Revelations of Vangheluwe's abuse came amid the 2010 global eruption of the sex abuse scandal, when thousands of people came forward in Europe and beyond with reports of priests who had abused them, bishops who covered up for the prelates and Vatican officials who ignored the crimes for decades.
The crisis was particularly acute in Belgium, where in the weeks following Vangheluwe's resignation a church-appointed commission reported that hundreds of people had come forward with tales of abuse that had led to at least 13 suicides.
The revelations prompted Belgian police to raid the home and offices of Belgium's former top churchmen and open the tombs of two archbishops north of Brussels in a search for hidden documents - moves that drew the stern condemnation of the Vatican.