BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgium's Roman Catholic bishops agreed on Monday to compensate victims of sexual abuse by priests in cases where the country's statute of limitations denies them the right to seek redress in court.
A Belgian parliamentary panel launched after the sexual abuse crisis shook the Church last year recommended in March that the bishops set up an arbitration commission to compensate victims, even if the cases were decades old.
The Catholic Church in Belgium as well as the branches in Ireland, the Netherlands and Germany have been shaken by revelations of clerical sexual abuse of minors going back for decades. Pope Benedict has apologized for the scandals.
Brussels Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard caused an uproar last year when he said the Church had no legal duty to compensate those molested by priests but might contribute to their cause as it does to help victims of natural disasters.
That and other seemingly callous statements by Leonard have strained relations between the Church and Brussels politicians, some of whom suggested slashing subsidies the Church enjoys. Several bishops have openly criticized Leonard for his views.
"The bishops are aware of their moral responsibility and society's expectations toward them," the bishops' conference said in a contrite statement.
"That's why they commit themselves to recognizing the victims and make redress for their suffering. They are determined to reestablish the victims' dignity and provide them with financial indemnities according to their needs."
More than 500 cases of alleged sexual abuse have been filed with Church and judicial authorities in Belgium since the former Bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, quit in disgrace in April 2010 after admitting he had molested a nephew.
The Vatican ordered him to undergo "spiritual and psychological treatment" at a monastery in France, but he had to switch to an undisclosed location after the media attention drove the monastery administration to ask him to leave.
(Reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek, Editing by Tom Heneghan and Michael Roddy)