Scandal of Belgian Church’s forced adoption policy resurfaces 

A Belgian newspaper re-opens scandal that erupted in 2015 and estimates that some 30,000 babies were forcibly given up for adoption with the complicity of the Catholic Church

La Croix International (21.12.2023) – A Flemish daily newspaper has provided shocking new revelations about a scandal that erupted in 2015 concerning the Catholic Church in Belgium and its complicity in forcing women to give up their children for adoption.  

Het Laatste Nieuws (HLN), in a podcast broadcast December 13, said 30,000 babies were put up for adoption in the country between 1945 and 1980 without the consent of their biological mothers. These children were not only entrusted to families, but were actually “sold” to them for prices ranging from 10,000 to 30,000 Belgian francs at the time (€250 to €750), the equivalent of several months of salary. 

The mothers were often young and unmarried, sometimes victims of rape or incest, who own families sent them to Catholic religious institutions to hide their pregnancies. The institutions were then responsible for finding families to adopt the babies. These adoptions were carried out without the consent of the mothers, who were put under general anesthesia and were not allowed to see their child once they had given birth. Some of these women testify to humiliation and sexual violence at the hands of nuns, and even forced sterilization. 

In this 30-minute podcast, entitled “Kinderen van de Kerk” (“Children of the Church”), the newspaper broadcast the testimony of Debby Mattys, 56, who was put up for adoption without her mother’s consent. In her testimony, Mattys recounts how she was “sold” to her adoptive parents by the Church for 20,000 Belgian francs (around €500). Her mother became pregnant at age 18 and was sent to a convent of nuns in Mortsel (in the province of Antwerp) where she was forced to work. 

When the forced adoption scandal made headlines in 2015, the Flemish parliament and Belgium’s bishops apologized. But what is particularly stirring the country’s media today are HLN’s estimated number of 30,000 babies and the exclusive testimonies of victims like Mattys. 

Religious congregations in the United Kingdom, Spain, Canada and Australia also operated homes for young women run in the post-World War II period. In Ireland, where the Magdalene Laundries scandal had the greatest repercussions, a parliamentary commission concluded that 56,000 women had passed through these homes and that 9,000 babies had died there. 

Reactions from the Belgian State and the Catholic Church 

Following these latest revelations, the Belgian minister of justice, Paul Van Tigchelt, announced his intention to set up an independent commission to investigate the matter. He also announced that four priests implicated in the scandal had already been suspended by the Church and removed from the list of ministers of religion paid by his justice department. 

The day after the podcast was broadcast, the testimony of Yngvild Ingels, a Flemish MP, caused a stir in the House of Representatives. Born anonymously in 1979 in a convent near Dunkirk, she recounted how she was entrusted to her adoptive parents for 6,500 Belgian francs (around € 160 today). 

Tommy Scholtes, a Jesuit priest who serves as spokesman for the Belgian bishops’ conference, again apologized on behalf of the Church leaders and called for an independent commission to be set up. “These people have gone through an extremely painful experience; these are things that should never have happened,” he told La Croix

But he denied there was a “systemic” nature to these events. He also rejected the use of the expression “purchase” of children, preferring to speak of “care” fees, instead. “Families waiting to adopt would thank the nuns when they received the child and they would contribute financially to the running of the religious communities,” Scholtes explained. 

Similarly, he pointed out that the HLN’s figure of 30,000 babies “cannot be confirmed” at this stage. “If compensation needs to be provided, the Church will do so, in the same way it has done for victims of sexual abuse,” the bishops’ spokesman said.  

The Irish religious congregations involved in the Magdalene convents apologized to the victims in 2013. That same year, the Irish state acknowledged its responsibility for the “enslavement” of women who had passed through these institutions, and gave them the opportunity to receive compensation. 

Photo: Catholic Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula in Brussels (Source: Wikimedia)