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PARIS (Reuters) - Belgium's justice minister urged the Vatican on Friday to impose stiff punishment on a disgraced Catholic bishop who denies being a pedophile despite admitting to sexually abusing two of his own nephews.
Stefaan de Clerck spoke out amid a media uproar after former Bruges Bishop Roger Vangheluwe defended himself on television by saying the abuse he committed was only "superficial."
Vangheluwe, who quit his post and went into hiding a year ago after admitting to molesting a nephew, confessed in the interview on Thursday evening that he had molested a second one.
He left Belgium last week under Vatican orders to seek "spiritual and psychological treatment" abroad and Belgian media say he is now in a French monastery. The Vatican has said the final decision on disciplining him lies with Pope Benedict.
"The Church must take up this case and see what sanction it should impose. It should be much more severe and much more complete than what has been said up until now," De Clerck, a Christian Democrat, told RTL radio.
"We expect the Church to punish him," he said. "They told him to leave the country -- that was also to shut him up. Making comments trying to minimize what happened is unacceptable."
The Vatican has been reluctant to impose stiff punishments on bishops found guilty of covering up sexual abuse of youths by priests under their authority.
Three bishops in Ireland and one in Germany have resigned but others accused of mismanagement have held onto their jobs.
Vangheluwe is the only admitted sexual abuser among the disgraced bishops and risks being defrocked if the Vatican should decide to impose the stiff punishment that Catholic critics of the hierarchy say is needed.
Clearly exasperated at the Church's defensive response to the scandals sapping its moral authority, De Clerck also called on the Belgian Catholic hierarchy to compensate abuse victims as recommended by a parliamentary commission.
Brussels Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard, who is head of the Belgian bishops conference, has caused controversy by saying the Church had no obligation to compensate victims.
In his interview, Vangheluwe told VT4 television he was sorry for molesting his nephews but did not consider himself a pedophile or see the acts as anything serious.
"It had nothing to do with sexuality," he said. "I have often been involved with children and I never felt the slightest attraction. It was a certain intimacy that took place."
"I don't have the impression at all that I am a pedophile. It was really just a small relationship. I did not have the feeling that my nephew was against it, quite the contrary."
The nephew who Vangheluwe admitted to abusing for 13 years went public with his painful secret last year, saying he could no longer keep quiet and wanted to expose his uncle's actions.
Vangheluwe said he had paid the nephew sums of about 25,000 euros on a number of occasions but this did not buy his silence.
In both cases, his abuse occurred years ago and can no longer be prosecuted, a justice official told Belgian radio.
"Vangheluwe is a sick man who doesn't realize what he's spewing out. He doesn't show the least bit of regret for the evil he has done," the Brussels newspaper De Morgen wrote.
"Shocking, disgusting, monstrous -- which word will end up being the best to describe Roger Vangheluwe's comments?"
"How can this man dare show himself on television?" the daily Gazet van Antwerpen asked. "For the love of God, how could someone like that become a bishop?"
Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels; editing by Mark Heinrich