By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor
PARIS (Reuters) - A Belgian Catholic bishop who resigned in disgrace after admitting to sexually abusing his nephew has left the country for "spiritual and psychological treatment" abroad, a Vatican ambassador said on Saturday.
Former Bruges Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, 74, went into hiding after shocking the Belgian Church with his public confession in April 2010. He first stayed at a Belgian monastery but later left it, and his exact whereabouts were not made public.
Archbishop Giacinto Berloco, the papal nuncio or ambassador to Belgium, said in a statement the Vatican's doctrinal department had investigated his case and decided he needed to go abroad for treatment. He did not say where the bishop went.
"Bishop Vangheluwe, who since his resignation has lived in different places without a fixed address, has already left Belgium to submit to this decision," he said in a statement.
Vangheluwe was the most senior Catholic cleric to admit to molesting a child amid all the sexual abuse cases exposed in Europe over the past two years. Other bishops who have resigned in Ireland were accused of covering up abuse cases.
Berloco spoke out after the Belgian daily Het Laatste Nieuws reported Vangheluwe had taken refuge in the Vatican embassy, a step that would shield him from Belgian justice authorities.
He said the Vatican's powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had decided that "even if the statute of limitations for the sexual abuse of his nephew had lapsed under canon law, Bishop Vangheluwe should leave Belgium and undertake a period of spiritual and psychological treatment."
OFF TO ROME?
Bruges prosecutor Jean-Marie Berkvens told Reuters last week that Vangheluwe's abuse cases were beyond the statute of limitations. But he left open the possibility of prosecuting him on other charges and said he would say more in late April.
His departure recalled the 2002 case of Boston Cardinal Francis Law, who quietly slipped out of the United States amid allegations he had actively covered up cases of child molestation by priests in his archdiocese.
Not accused of abuse himself, Law was given a prestigious Church position in Rome. Vangheluwe will probably be confined by his Church superiors to a monastery, possibly in or near Rome, if Belgium does not seek his extradition.
Vangheluwe's resignation sparked a wave of revelations of sexual abuse in the Belgian Church. A Church commission received 475 complaints within a few weeks and reported that 13 people had committed suicide in the past after their complaints to Church officials fell on deaf ears.
His continued presence in Belgium fueled debate in the local Church about the hierarchy's mismanagement of the abuse crisis. Cardinal Godfried Danneels was accused of protecting him and other abusers during his decades as primate of Belgium.
Brussels Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard has caused controversy by saying it was vengeful to prosecute retired predator priests and the Church had no obligation to compensate abuse victims.
His provocative statements hitting back at critics have prompted protests from Belgian politicians and provoked other bishops to openly disagree with him.
Pranksters have also made him a target by throwing cream pies in his face at public events. He was hit with four cream pies last Tuesday while attending a conference at the Catholic University of Louvain La Neuve.
(Editing by Sophie Hares)