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How a Catholic order dedicated to protecting children failed them

A pedophile priest was sent to work for an aid organization helping vulnerable families in an African country, even though his Catholic order knew he had been convicted of abusing children years earlier in Europe, a CNN investigation has found.

Father Luk Delft is accused of abusing at least two other boys in the Central African Republic (CAR) while in a key role at Caritas, a leading Catholic charity.

The 50-year-old priest, from Belgium, was only removed from the post after CNN revealed the new accusations against him to his superiors in the Salesians of Don Bosco, a religious order established specifically to protect children.

For years, the Salesians covered up Delft’s abuse, moving him from post to post, and sending him to work in some of the world’s most troubled places.

Despite the allegations he faced, and being convicted of abuse, he was allowed to maintain a high profile — even receiving the sacrament at a service presided over by Pope Francis at the Vatican this year.

Delft’s case also raises serious questions about the vetting process at one of the world’s largest Catholic non-governmental organization (NGO) networks, and comes as the church struggles to turn the page on decades of sexual abuse scandals involving members of the clergy.

Alban Alain, now 17, and his family told CNN that Delft repeatedly sexually abused the teenager when they met at a camp for internally displaced people (IDP) in Kaga-Bandoro, CAR, four years ago.

“It’s a horrible thing that he did to me,” Alban, who was 13 when the alleged abuse began, told CNN.

“What he did to my son is not normal,” Onono Alain, the boy’s father, told CNN.

Leaning uneasily against the wall in his family’s two-room mud-brick shack along a red dirt road in northern CAR, Alban shifted nervously as we showed him a photograph of Delft.

There was a long silence before he said, “Luk.” Asked how he knew the priest, he said quietly: “He is my friend.”

“He would buy me clothes, he would often give me money,” he added. “We were always together.”

“He was brought here as Director of Caritas and he was entrusted with distributing aid,” said Onono. “But instead he took advantage of his position to sodomize my son.”

Abuse in a place of safety

Alban and his family are Catholics in a country riven by years of religious bloodshed between Muslims and Christians.

“When the Seleka militia took over our district, we had to leave,” Onono explained.

The family fled across the river into Kaga-Bandoro to escape the violence.

Along the way, like hundreds of thousands of other Christians in the country, the Alain family sought sanctuary in Catholic Church compounds. When they reached the IDP camp, they thought they had found a place of safety. But their ordeal was far from over.

Alban appeared to be deeply traumatized by his treatment at Delft’s hands.

“When I think about it, it’s not good for me,” Alban said. “It makes me very stressed, even when I am with my friends. I often cry.”

Unable to keep speaking, he leaned on his father for support as Onono explained more about Delft’s abuse.

“I think he did it many times because he was always with my son,” he said. “When my son would come home, he would have some money — like 2,000 or 3,000 CFA (Central African Francs — around $3 to $5).”

“The last time my child came back and told me what happened … He doesn’t lie to me. I know him.”

Alain said the most money Delft ever gave his son was 10,000 CFA — the equivalent of just $17.

We met the father of another of Delft’s alleged victims in the same camp.

“What he did with my son is forever ingrained in my memory,” the man, who asked not to be identified, told CNN.

He refused to reveal the full details of his son’s abuse at the hands of the pedophile priest, but asked the CNN team to tell Delft that “one day we will see him again — in court — and we will have a resolution.”

“We are waiting for justice,” he insisted.

Preying on vulnerable children

This was not the first time Delft was accused of abusing young boys.

He was already a convicted sex offender and his superiors in the Salesian order were aware of that when he was offered the posting in the CAR.

Thousands of miles away, and more than a decade earlier, Delft had abused at least two boys — one aged 12, and another aged 13 — while working as a bedroom monitor at a Salesian boarding school, Don Bosco Sint-Denijs-Westrem, in the Belgian city of Ghent, in 2001.

The priest, then age 31, was meant to watch over the children. Instead he abused them at their most vulnerable, stalking the dormitory at night and assaulting them as they slept.

Two men, who CNN is not identifying at their request, allege that Delft behaved inappropriately towards them when they were boys.

“We sleep in a big room of 30 persons […] everybody was 12, 13 years old. Suddenly at night, someone was trying to pull off my blankets,” Guillaume (not his real name) told CNN in Belgium. “I thought it was just a child who wanted to play because we’re sleeping next to each other.”

“I woke up, I jumped, and I was running after it because I wanted to know what child was bullying me,” but the person was gone.

Guillaume counts himself as one of the lucky ones. A nervous sleeper, he woke up each time his blankets were removed, before he could come to any real harm. A fellow student was not so fortunate.

A watch in the darkness

“One night, I woke up because I felt something,” Guillaume’s classmate Benoit (not his real name) told CNN. “I felt, or I thought I felt, someone touching me, didn’t know what or who it was.”

“The day after, I remember I told one of my best friends that I had a really weird dream involving getting touched in places which were weird,” he recalled. “We laughed and we said, ‘OK, it’s a dream. It’s a dormitory so nothing can happen.'”

“And then the next night I woke up again and then I realized I was really awake … I felt someone touching my legs and my genitals.”

He says Delft then performed oral sex on him.

Over breakfast the next morning, Benoit shared his experience with Guillaume and some other students in the cafeteria, and Benoit told them he had caught a glimpse of a distinctive watch.

Benoit recalled: “The guy next to me said; ‘Hmm. I think I know the watch as well.’ And he said, ‘Hey Luk, what time is it?’ And Luk raised his arm and I saw the watch and I recognized it immediately. So, it went through my body: OK, this really happened, and this was Luk Delft who did it.”

Benoit and Guillaume reported the abuse to Wim Hanssens, then the deputy director of the boarding school.
Discovery and dismissal

“One of the students came to me and told me that Luk Delft was walking during the night between the beds and was caressing under the sheets of those children … and he also caressed their genitals,” Hanssens told CNN. “A day afterwards, another boy came to me and told me the same story.”

Hanssens said he immediately called Delft into his office.

“I showed him on the paper what these children told me. At first, he said, ‘It’s not that dramatic, I just caressed them.’ But when I let him read that he touched the genitals of those kids, he confessed … And at that moment, I told him to leave immediately.”

Hanssens said his decision to dismiss Delft was confirmed at a meeting with the Salesian provincial, the local head of the order in Ghent, and the order’s lawyer.

Hanssens said he only heard from Delft one more time. The disgraced priest wrote to him, requesting the return of his pillow and some books he had lent to one of the victims. Hanssens was stunned at the audacity of the request, and said he never forwarded it to the victim.

Hanssens believes his decision to act as a whistleblower — reporting the abusive actions of Delft and other priests — was held against him by the Salesian order, and says he was later forced to leave the school in Ghent and work more than 100 miles from his home.
Father Carlo Loots, Delft’s Salesian superior in Belgium, insists Hanssens was treated correctly. He says that the order appreciated that he “did not shy away from these more difficult messages.”

Benoit says his mother was later invited to a meeting with the Salesians.

“They wanted to know if we would file an official complaint, which she would have done, but they told a story about traumatizing people if you take it to court, it can take several years, several investigations, several interviews, and it’s not healthy for a 13-year-old,” Benoit said.

“I know my parents and the other children’s parents kind of believed this story,” he said, adding that his mother “doesn’t want to call it being pressured or under pressure, but in fact it is.”

“I don’t think anyone wants to put it on a 13-year-old, so they went with the story and left it. And the Salesians got away really easy that way.”
Child pornography

The Salesians did not report the accusations against Delft to the police. He was quietly transferred to another of the order’s schools in Belgium, Don Bosco Sint-Pieters-Woluwe, where he worked as an educational coordinator.

Loots says the transfer was made on the understanding that Delft should have “no direct pedagogical contact with young people.”

Despite this, in 2008, Delft was sent on a school trip — with children from Don Bosco Sint-Denijs-Westrem’s sister school — to Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The following year, the priest was caught with child pornography on a work laptop.

Loots told CNN the Salesians’ superiors in Rome had been informed of this discovery and were constantly updated about Delft’s activities. The head of the
Salesian order in Rome declined CNN’s requests for an interview.

But still Delft was not reported to the authorities. Instead, he was transferred again, this time to work with the Salesian NGO, DMOS-COMIDE.
In 2010, he was sent to Haiti in the wake of the island’s deadly earthquake, to join in the charity’s humanitarian relief efforts there.

Loots says the Salesians are in a difficult position when it comes to dealing with abusers like Delft.

“Most of the time, it’s impossible that he can stay in the community or the place where he lives or works,” Loots explained. “We have to remove him immediately and then because Salesians are working with young people, we don’t have so much alternatives.”

Banned from contact with children

Delft’s crimes did not come to the attention of Belgian authorities until 2010, when a former colleague at the school reported the abuse, nine years after it happened.

The prosecutor in the case told CNN she suspected Delft had abused several other boys at the school, but that no further victims had come forward to make official complaints against him.

When the case finally came to court in Ghent in 2012, Delft was convicted of two counts of child abuse and of possessing child pornography, according to the prosecutor.

But because the Salesians had previously encouraged him to seek help for his pedophilia (and this was taken into account by authorities), he was sentenced to 18 months in prison, suspended for three years.

He was ordered to undergo therapy at a center for sex offenders, and banned from having any contact with children for 10 years.

Under the terms of his sentence, that ban should have run until 2022.

But the year after his conviction, Delft was handed an important role at Catholic charity Caritas that brought him into contact with some of the world’s most vulnerable children.

Loots and Lucas Van Looy, the Bishop of Ghent, said Delft’s initial move to the CAR was approved by the Salesians and took place with the prior knowledge of the Belgian probation committee, according to an email provided to CNN. But Delft being in the CAR meant he was soon working again in close proximity with children and with little monitoring of his activities. This gave him clear opportunities to violate his court restrictions, and Delft’s latest accusers indicate that he did.

UNICEF has called the CAR one of the worst places in the world to be a child; a shaky peace deal is barely holding, and United Nations forces there are on constant alert.

As director of Caritas’ operations in the CAR, Delft was placed in charge of the organization’s work in more than 120 parishes across the country, caring for children and families forced from their homes by violence.

Images posted online from 2015 onwards — on Caritas’ website and on Delft’s personal Facebook page — show the disgraced priest interacting with children in the CAR, apparently in direct violation of the terms of his sentence, since the ban on contact with children applies worldwide.

He continued to travel and work at high levels within the Catholic Church’s hierarchy, joining in celebrations for Pope Francis’s visit to Bangui, the country’s capital city, in 2015, and appearing in a promotional video for Caritas earlier this year. In May 2019, he was filmed receiving the sacrament just meters away from the pontiff during a trip to the Vatican.

Andrew Azzopardi, head of safeguarding for Caritas, said it was unacceptable that Delft had been appointed to such an important role within the charity, given his previous history.

“No person with a conviction that Father Luk has should have access to children, and no person should be in a position of authority that is of the director of the Caritas,” he told CNN. “Certainly, I would expect that anyone who has a conviction is not placed in that position.”

Father Carlo Loots said the Salesians were “naive” to send Delft to the CAR.

“It’s a little bit cynical, probably, to give him a new opportunity and that posting at Kaga-Bandoro and (to expect) that the Bishop of Kaga-Bandoro would take responsibility for him.” The Bishop of Kaga-Bandoro at that time, Albert Vanbuel, was himself a Belgian Salesian.

But Loots insisted the organization had few alternatives.

“It’s one of the most difficult questions every time when you are confronted with an abuser,” he said. “We may not shoot him, even … if we’d like to shoot him, but … what alternative do we have for them?”

“We look at that moment for the best possible alternative with the lowest risk that he would repeat his bad behavior. What you are doing is confronting us with that — what we have thought to be the best of all … scenarios — even that wasn’t enough.”

Benoit said he was “shocked” to discover that Delft was working with children in the CAR, despite the Belgian court order banning him from doing so: “I saw pictures of him surrounded by little children, he was smiling, and I recognized the smirk on his face.”

Disgraced priest unapologetic

When CNN confronted Delft at his Caritas office in Bangui about the abuse, he was unapologetic.

Caught off-guard, he broke off from his meeting as he spotted our camera, stood up and attempted to lead us out of the room, saying: “No, no, no.”

Frowning, he appeared not to recognize Alban Alain’s name, and when asked if he had anything to say about the allegations of abuse against him, said:

“No, nothing.”

Shaking his head, an uneasy smile on his face, he watched as the CNN crew left the building.

Delft was recalled to Belgium at the end of June, following CNN’s investigation. The Salesians say he is now “under supervision” at the order’s residence at Sint-Pieters-Woluwe. The residence has a school on its campus, CNN has learned.

Law enforcement and church authorities in Belgium have begun investigations into Delft, based on CNN’s findings; they said they could not comment on whether or not he will face prosecution or punishment for his alleged actions in the CAR because their inquiries are ongoing.

They also refused to comment on the agreement which enabled Delft to travel to the CAR despite his conviction and ban from working with children.

The Salesians say they are conducting internal inquiries into Delft’s case, but it is not clear if this could result in him being defrocked.

For now, at least, Delft remains a member of the Salesian order.

Guillaume said what should happen next is obvious.

“Someone like Luk Delft is ill and he definitely needs a treatment,” he said. “Putting Luk Delft in prison won’t help this man or other children because he will go out of prison and he will do the same thing.

“The people who need to be convicted, the real criminals are the people who are moving Luk Delft from place A to place B … because those people are people with common sense and they know perfectly what Luk Delft is up to, has been up to and what he will be doing in the future.”

As for the disgraced priest’s victims in CAR, Alban said simply, “I want him brought to justice.”

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