New twist in Belgian Catholic abuse legal row

12th October 2010, Comments 0 comments

Belgium's highest court ordered magistrates on Tuesday to re-examine evidence seized by police relating to decades of child abuse and alleged Roman Catholic Church cover-ups.

The court overturned two previous decisions by lower courts that rendered inadmissible evidence taken from church headquarters, the home of a former archbishop and a church-backed commission investigating sex crimes perpetrated by priests.

Responding to lawyers acting for alleged victims who lodged appeals, the judges said the lower courts were wrong not to hear civil parties and therefore magistrates should look again at the evidence in a new light.

It means that truckloads of material gathered by police in spectacular raids in June that drew the ire of Pope Benedict XVI himself could potentially be used to relaunch state prosecutions for abuse.

However, it does not automatically mean a prosecution case will be launched, because the lower judges could reach the same decisions as before, saying they have done so this time while considering aggrieved parties' accusations.

The raids on June 24, conducted as a Vatican ambassador was meeting with church leaders, opened the eyes of the world to the scale of the scandal within the Belgian Catholic Church, but the church and retired archbishop, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, asked that the material seized be declared out of bounds.

The investigating magistrate had to hand back all the documents after judges deemed police overstepped their authority.

Priests complained of being held for hours against their will and without proper sustenance as their mobile telephones were taken, and that tombs were opened during the search, principally looking for correspondence between victims and church authorities.

Child psychologist Peter Adriaenssens then unleashed nationwide controversy with the release on September 10 of a report by a commission he led which revealed nearly 500 people reported abuses by priests since the 1950s and 13 victims committed suicide.

Adriaenssens subsequently called on the pope to resign.

The Belgian Church has since expressed a fear that the financial cost of the scandal could be too great for it to bear, after dioceses in the United States were driven to bankruptcy by million-dollar settlements for victims of sexually abusive priests.

© 2010 AFP

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