Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday accused Belgian police of “deplorable methods” in raiding a bishops’ meeting as part of a pedophilia probe, as Brussels said the Vatican was over-reacting.
The pontiff wrote a message of support to Andre-Joseph Leonard, archbishop of Brussels-Mechelen and the head of the Belgian bishops’ conference, over the raid in which senior clergy were detained for questioning.
“I want to express… my closeness and solidarity in this moment of sadness, in which, with certain surprising and deplorable methods, searches were carried out including in the Mechelen cathedral and in the premises where the Belgian episcopate was meeting in plenary session,” he said.
Thursday’s raids were prompted by new claims of child abuse by members of the Catholic Church in Belgium, one of the countries worst hit by recent revelations of pedophilia by priests in Europe and North America.
Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said Saturday the detention of bishops was “serious and unbelievable”, likening it to the practices of communist regimes.
In his letter Pope Benedict called for the respect of the Church’s own procedures for tackling abuse.
He stressed that police had targeted a meeting that was due to address “amongst other things, aspects linked to the abuse of minors by members of the clergy.”
“I have myself repeated numerous times that these serious facts must be dealt with by civil law and by canon law, in reciprocal respect of the specificity and autonomy of each,” added the pontiff, according to a copy of the letter released Sunday by the Vatican.
The Brussels prosecutor has said the raid followed a string of accusations “denouncing abuse of minors committed by a certain number of Church figures.”
Police confiscated phones, computers and the archdiocese’s accounting system in a search for documents including any correspondence between alleged victims and the Catholic authorities.
Italy’s Corriere della Sera said Belgian authorities acted out of frustration with the Church, which under a 1990s agreement was supposed to refer abuse cases to prosecutors to pursue.
A spokesman for the Belgian archdiocese, Eric De Beukelaer, insisted “the church doesn’t consider itself above the law.”
“The only thing we ask is whether the searches were proportional,” as the images went around the world and “gave a negative image of the church,” he told local television RTL-TVi.
But Philippe Grollet, a Belgian secular activist, said the Vatican’s response was scandalous.
“What right does the church have to pose as the victim here?” he asked.
Belgian officials have stressed that investigating magistrates have full independence from government authorities.
Justice Minister Stefaan De Clerck nevertheless defended the raid in television interviews on Sunday, describing the Vatican’s reaction as “a bit excessive” and based on false information.
“We must not turn this into a diplomatic incident. The bishops were treated completely normally… and it is false to say that they received no food or drink,” he said, referring to a claim made by Vatican number two Bertone.
A spokesman for the Belgian archdiocese, Eric De Beukelaer, also said the bishops had been well looked after and that Bertone’s remarks were “personal comments made in the heat of the moment.”
Fernand Keuleneer, lawyer for the Mechelen-Brussels archdiocese, said the incident was certain to strain ties.
“There is of course a diplomatic aspect to this whole matter and I think perhaps the (instructing) judge did not really sufficiently consider the diplomatic aspects,” he said.
The Belgian Church was rocked in April when its longest-serving bishop, 73-year-old Roger Vangheluwe, resigned after admitting sexually abusing a boy for years.
Police also seized computer files at the home of Leonard’s predecessor Godfried Danneels, who was Belgium’s top cardinal for the past 20 years.
According to retired priest Dirk Deville, hundreds of cases of sexual abuse had been signalled to Danneels going back to the 1990s, leading to suspicions of a cover-up.