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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The Belgian Roman Catholic Church is afraid to give a full apology for the sexual abuse of children by its priests as this could open the door to compensation claims, a senior bishop said on Tuesday.
"If we say 'mea culpa', then we are morally responsible, legally responsible, and then people come wanting money," Bishop Guy Harpigny, the Belgian bishops' spokesman on abuse issues, told Belgium's Radio 1.
"We are afraid. Who will ask -- the victims, the court or someone else? That's why we are so careful."
A church commission studying 475 complaints revealed last Friday that sexual abuse had been rife in Catholic institutions in the 1960s and 1970s, and led 13 victims to commit suicide.
But church and judicial authorities have not come up with a clear strategy. Police seized the 475 files and other dossiers in June, but a court declared the raid illegal and ordered the material returned.
On Monday the church announced a plan to open a support and reconciliation centre later this year, but victims' groups said it was too vague, and urged the state to launch another inquiry.
"After the news conference, I got a lot of calls, including from parliamentary deputies, that said 'Please, give all the files to the justice authorities'," Harpigny, who is bishop of Tournai, told La Premiere radio in another interview.
He said he thought the files should be handed over, but that some victims did not want the state involved.
Asked about an apology, the bishop told Radio 1: "As an institution I must accept that I am responsible, albeit for things that happened in the 1960s, and that is why, in the name of the church, I ask the victims for forgiveness.
"The news conference yesterday was a missed chance for a 'mea culpa'. Maybe the church was too concerned with itself."
Harpigny said the Vatican would soon make a decision about Roger Vangheluwe, the bishop of Bruges who resigned in April after admitting he had sexually abused his nephew for years.
The bishop suggested last week that Vangheluwe, who is in hiding, be tried under church law. Critics have since called for him to be defrocked, something only Pope Benedict can do.
Harpigny said a decision should come later this year.
Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop, Tom Heneghan and Philip Pullella; Editing by Kevin Liffey