BRUSSELS, Belgium — The head of the Roman Catholic Church in Belgium sparked an uproar today after the release of a new translation of a book in which he says the AIDS epidemic is a “sort of inherent justice” resulting from the “mistreatment of the profound nature of human love.”
Coming just weeks after a report that detailed the abuse of hundreds of children by Catholic priests over several decades in Belgium, the comments of Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard has plunged the Church into a fresh controversy.
Political leaders, media, medical institutions and gay rights campaigners have all lined up to denounce his words.
“This statement is far removed from Christian charity,” said Senator Wouter Beke, chairman of the governing Christian Democratic and Flemish party, which traditionally has close links to the Church.
“If God exists, maybe he could provide a punishment for someone who utters such nonsense,” said Rudy Demotte, prime minister of Belgium’s southern Wallonia region.
Doctors and researchers at the AIDS center at Antwerp’s Institute of Tropical Medicine, which is renowned for research into HIV/AIDS, said Leonard’s comments were “offensive” and “absolutely medieval.”
Lawyer Jean-Marie de Meester lodged a complaint at Belgium’s Center for Equal Opportunities claiming the Archbishop’s words were tantamount to hate speech against homosexuals.
Leonard, who was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI in January, is well known for his conservative views. In a news conference Friday, he claimed his comments on AIDS had been misunderstood.
“When we adopt a form of behavior that is not right, there are consequences that let us know that it’s not correct,” he said in recorded comments posted on the church website Friday.
“At the beginning of this epidemic, if I’ve understood the scientific articles, there were risky practices, sex with multiple partners, anal relations instead of vaginal which allowed this proliferation to happen. So we can say, if we want to reason in that way, that nature is taking revenge if you don’t use your body correctly.”
The archbishop stressed that he had “sympathy” and “solidarity” for all AIDS suffers and the hope that they are “treated in the best possible conditions.”
His comments on AIDS first appeared in a collection of interviews published in French in 2006. An updated Dutch-language edition was published on Thursday containing the same phrase translated, despite a warning from the Church spokesman that they would provoke a critical reaction.
In the book, a journalist asks Leonard if he believes AIDS to be a punishment from God. He says no, but adds that just as nature reacts when we abuse the environment, “when we mistreat human love, it ends up perhaps getting its revenge.”
Archbishop Leonard is no stranger to controversy. Shortly after his appointment he provoked outrage from gay groups in a television interview in which he said, “homosexuality is not the same as normal sex, in the same way that anorexia is not a normal appetite.” He has also taken a tough line against abortion, contraception and in-vitro fertilization.
In June, police investigating allegations that the Church had covered up child sex abuse by priests searched the Archbishop’s home.
The Church is reeling from a series of pedophile cases including that of the bishop of Bruges, who was forced to resign in April after admitting to abusing a young male relative for years. In September, a Church-sponsored report disclosed the harrowing testimony of hundreds of Belgians who said they’d been abused by priests over the past 50 years.
Catholicism is the leading religion in Belgium with around 60 percent of the 10 million-strong population describing themselves as Catholic. However, Belgian society has become increasingly secular in recent years and the country has followed the Netherlands in legalizing gay marriage and euthanasia.
A growing number of Belgians are leaving the church and a poll published in January showed only 14 percent regularly attend mass.