ROME — Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium, a liberal supporter of Pope Francis and a former Vatican adviser whose long pastoral career was damaged in a sex-abuse scandal after his retirement, died on March 14 at his home in Mechelen, north of Brussels. He was 85.
A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Brussels-Mechelen, which Cardinal Danneels had led for three decades, confirmed the death. No specific cause was given.
Cardinal Danneels, who spoke several languages, was considered a progressive in Roman Catholic leadership, supporting a greater role for women in the church and a less rigid policy against contraception. He believed that H.I.V.-positive people should be able use condoms rather than risk transmitting the virus.
Years before Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world by retiring in 2013, Cardinal Danneels had raised the possibility of popes retiring in advanced age or when their health deteriorated.
He was a target of conservative critics in his 29 years as president of the Belgian Bishops’ Conference. They complained that he had not done enough to thwart growing secularization in Belgium, whose government has approved same-sex marriage, in vitro fertilization, euthanasia and experiments on human embryos.
Cardinal Danneels’s reputation was badly hurt shortly after he retired in 2010, when Belgian newspapers released recordings of a secretly taped conversation in which he was heard urging a victim of serial sexual abuse by a bishop to say nothing about it for a year, until the bishop — the victim’s own uncle — could retire. The bishop was Roger Vangheluwe, who was 73 at the time.
On the tapes, which church authorities confirmed were accurate, Cardinal Danneels told the victim: “The bishop will resign next year, so actually it would be better for you to wait. I don’t think you’d do yourself or him a favor by shouting this from the rooftops.”
The cardinal was then heard warning the man against trying to blackmail the church and suggested that he accept a private apology from the bishop and not drag “his name through the mud.”
The victim responded, “He has dragged my whole life through the mud, from 5 until 18 years old,” and asked, “Why do you feel sorry for him and not for me?”
After the tapes’ release, the police interrogated Cardinal Danneels for hours and raided his home and the church’s offices in Mechelen, searching for indications that archdiocese officials might have concealed evidence of pedophilia.
The nephew ultimately exposed Bishop Vangheluwe, saying he had been abused for 13 years. The bishop resigned in disgrace. A year later he admitted to having abused a second nephew.
The revelations prompted hundreds of people to come forward, claiming that they, too, had been victims of priests, plunging the Belgian church into deep crisis, one being replicated in countries throughout Europe as reports of sex abuse spread.
No legal action was taken against Cardinal Danneels, but the scandal left him tarnished as having tried to protect a sex offender.
The episode was not the first time he had had to deal with sex-abuse charges against members of the clergy. In the late 1990s he established an independent commission to support the victims of abusive priests after the police had verified the allegations of a 12-year-old against a pedophile priest. The archdiocese had to pay damages to the boy.
Godfried Maria Jules Danneels was born on June 4, 1933, in Kanegem, in rural western Belgium, the oldest of six children. His parents were schoolteachers.
He studied theology at the Higher Institute of Philosophy of the Catholic University of Louvain in 1954 and received his doctorate from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 1961. He started teaching theology at the Flemish Catholic University of Louvain in 1977.
He was ordained a priest in 1957 and named the spiritual director of the main seminary of Bruges two years later. Pope Paul VI made him bishop of Antwerp in 1977 at age 44. He became archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels in 1979. Pope John Paul II made him a cardinal in 1983.
Cardinal Danneels was an adviser to the Vatican secretary of state and helped oversee the appointments of bishops. He was on a rare diplomatic mission to China in April 2005 when John Paul II died, and he had to cancel a meeting with the deputy premier to return to Rome.
After Benedict’s retirement, Cardinal Danneels was an active supporter of Pope Francis, whose election he had long favored.
“Years before the last conclave, he told me that the church needed a Francis as head of the church,” Geert De Kerpel, spokesman of the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels, said in a phone interview.
After his retirement, Cardinal Danneels spent his time with friends and acquaintances, praying and reading literature, “what he held most dear to his heart,” said Cardinal Jozef De Kesel, his successor as archbishop of Mechelen-Bruxelles, in a statement announcing his death.
He is survived by two sisters, a brother and many nieces and nephews.
In a telegram of condolence, Francis called Cardinal Danneels a “zealous pastor” who had been “attentive to the challenges of the contemporary Church.”