Saturday, January 1, 2011

The confession of François Houtart

This week brought the surprising and distressing revelation that Belgian Marxist sociologist and Catholic priest, François Houtart, sexually abused one of his cousins when the victim was a minor 40 years ago. The incident was brought to light by the victim's sister in the context of a campaign to nominate Houtart, who had already received UNESCO's Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence in 2009, for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. The campaign was immediately suspended and Houtart stepped down from the board of the Centre Tricontinental (CETRI), the research organization on Third World social movements the priest had founded in 1976. The 85-year old priest was also a founder and has been one of the most active members of the World Social Forum.

The Belgian newspaper, Le Soir, printed Houtart's written admission sent from Quito, Ecuador, where he is travelling, in its entirety in their December 29, 2010 edition. We will now let the man they called the "chanoine rouge" and the "pape de l'altermondialisme" ("Red Canon" and "Pope of Alterglobalism") speak for himself:

The message I received in Latin America (where I have travelled seven times this year) was certainly a trigger for the decision to halt the campaign [for the Nobel Peace Prize], but it does not diminish the importance of the reasons that have been put forward. I had accepted the nomination only at the insistence of the alterglobalist movement, to highlight the idea of possible change. I never believed a positive outcome was possible. As the development of the campaign progressed, I became aware of what that might mean, to assume such a context, at the time when I would be nearly 87 at the beginning of 2012. Since the summer, I have received on average one request for an interview a day, especially during my travels in Latin America, Asia and Africa. The personal nature of the campaign seemed to me to obscure the fact of the collective effort at play too much. At the end of the summer, I spoke about it with two key members of the Committee, wondering if it wouldn't be better to present an organization such as the World Social Forum.

The message from my cousin was a reminder that only I could understand. About 40 years ago, while returning from a conference in the south of the country [Belgium], I was invited by her parents, now deceased, to stay with them in the Liege area. While passing through the bedroom of one of the boys in the family, I indeed touched his private parts on two occasions, which awakened and frightened him. It was obviously a reckless and irresponsible act.

In the days that followed, I had contact with my cousins, their parents, respectively, in Leuven and Liege. On the one hand, I was concerned about the consequences for their son. It was then that they told me that he had been seen by a psychologist. Furthermore, this event also personally upset me because I was aware of the contradiction that it meant with my Christian faith and my duties as a priest, to which I was deeply attached. I told them I was ready to renounce the exercise of the priesthood and to assume all the consequences. So, I have never thought, nor said, that it was a normal or ordinary situation.

They then suggested that I consult a professor at the seminary of Liège, a priest and psychologist. He advised me to stay in the priesthood and to concentrate on academic tasks in the sociology of religion. I then had a choice between purely academic work in the area or a task in connection with social commitment. Given the problems that existed especially in the Third World and that I had been able to experience, I chose the second option. I have carried it out with all my strength during these forty years, I think I can say, without any desire for self-promotion, but on the basis of deep conviction, both social and religious.

I've always been very grateful for the forgiving attitude of my cousins, who allowed me to continue this commitment. In a recent conversation with one of their daughters who contacted me, she reminded me that, for her parents and family, forgiveness does not mean lack of suffering, which I accepted, asking that her generation be also able to accept my apology.

That is why this reminder, in addition to the reasons mentioned, made me make the decision to stop the campaign, which the Committee carried out after a few days, while awaiting my return from Latin America.

So far there has been no comment on Houtart's admission from many of his colleagues in the movement, but I see it as perhaps useful and instructive in how to handle these crises gracefully. First, Houtart doesn't diminish the significance or evil of his actions. Second, he did seek help for himself and offered to leave the priesthood completely. Third, acknowledging his pedophilia problem, he voluntarily sought a role that did not put him in a parish or school situation, in regular contact with young children. Fourth, this admission is completely and courageously honest and open. This leaves no fodder for the rumor mill and is the approach that many experts in this area have advocated for church institutions confronted with similar problems.

Hopefully by making this forthright admission, Houtart will be able to salvage the substantial good he has done over the last 40 years and not be judged solely on the basis of one "reckless and irresponsible act".

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