PARIS (Reuters) - Belgium's Roman Catholic leader has sworn off public remarks until Christmas after outraging public opinion twice this month with jarring comments about AIDS and a call for mercy for retired paedophile priests.
Brussels Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard, already under fire because of the scandal of sexual abuse of minors by priests, caused a storm two weeks ago when he said in a new book that AIDS was "a sort of inherent justice."
Politicians, abuse victims and some leading lay Catholics rounded on him again this week after he said that prosecuting retired priests for abuse they committed long ago was "a kind of vengeance" that they should be spared.
"We're in a very serious crisis and the last thing we need is more commotion," Leonard's spokesman, Jurgen Mettepenningen, told Belgium's VTM television on Thursday evening.
"I've agreed with Archbishop Leonard that there should now be as much radio silence as possible until Christmas" so that the Church can concentrate on overcoming the crisis and carrying out its main task of preaching the Gospel, he said.
Belgium's Catholic Church ranks just after Ireland's as the Church hardest hit by a wave of sexual abuse scandals that rolled across Europe in the past two years.
A popular bishop quit in April after confessing to abusing his nephew, and a cardinal's reputation was badly tarnished by accusations of covering up sex scandals, which he denies. Almost 600 alleged cases of past abuse have been registered since then.
Losing patience with the bishops, the lower house of parliament decided on Thursday to set up a special commission to investigate the abuse crisis. One deputy suggested changing tax laws to reduce a state subsidy the Church receives.
Senator Rik Torfs, a canon lawyer, suggested Catholics sign a petition for Pope Benedict to remove Leonard from his top job in Belgium by "promoting him to Rome." He said: "The archbishop doesn't speak in our name and we didn't want him."
Leonard, who took over as primate of Belgium in January, reacted to the uproar over AIDS by saying his words had been misunderstood and he did not mean to stigmatise sufferers.
After he said on Wednesday that retired priests need not be prosecuted for alleged abuses because they were no longer in pastoral work, his spokesman said defensively: "Archbishop Leonard just wanted to bring some humanity to the debate."
During Thursday's parliamentary debate on launching a special commission on abuse, several politicians insisted the state, not the Church, must decide who would be prosecuted.
Two leading Catholic magazines, Kerk en Leven and Tertio, have distanced themselves from Leonard, who is considered the most conservative and most outspoken of Belgium's bishops.
"I have the impression that he has very little empathy for the victims of sexual abuse," Bert Claerhout, editor of Kerk en Leven, told the daily De Standaard. "Leonard keeps on provoking ... I think and I hope that he's not doing this knowingly."
The victims' support group Human Rights in the Church said the archbishop's comments showed he did not want to discuss the Church's responsibility for the abuse scandals.
"The Church always talks about understanding and listening but does all it can to thwart justice for victims," it said.
A Church-appointed panel reported in September that it had opened dossiers on 475 claims of clerical sexual abuse, much of it going back to the 1960s and 1970s. The federal prosecutor's office said last week it had received 103 more abuse reports.
Belgium's Catholic bishops announced in September they would set up a special support and reconciliation centre for abuse victims, but withdrew the offer after victims loudly criticised it as a bid to avoid an independent inquiry. (Editing by Tim Pearce)