Police raided Belgium's Catholic Church HQ on Thursday and seized computer files at the home of its top cardinal over the last 20 years amid fresh accusations of child sex abuse by priests.
The latest blow to the scandal-hit Roman Catholic Church came as the Vatican's ambassador to Belgium attended a meeting with bishops, weeks after Pope Benedict XVI begged forgiveness from victims of paedophile priests.
A spokesman for Brussels prosecutors said that the action, involving about 30 officers and investigators, followed a string of accusations "denouncing abuse of minors committed by a certain number of Church figures."
Armed police with dogs sealed off the palace of the archbishop of Mechelen, just north of Brussels, "in order to establish if these accusations are backed up or not," said Jean-Marc Meilleur.
A spokesman for the man who led Belgium's Catholic Church for two decades until the turn of the year, Godfried Danneels, said police confiscated a computer from the archbishop's home before he was escorted to the archdiocese.
Some 450 submissions to a special independent commission set up in eastern Louvain to examine complaints received of child abuse in the past were also taken by officers in a related swoop.
Belgian media reported that documents held by the commission were supposed to have been passed over "discreetly" to justice officials, but that clearly that had not yet been done as expected.
The Roman Catholic Church in Belgium has endured some of the worst of the worldwide paedophilia scandal to beset the Vatican, having been rocked in April when its longest-serving bishop, 73-year-old Roger Vangheluwe, resigned from his Bruges post after admitting sexually abusing a boy for years.
According to retired priest Dirk Deville, hundreds of cases of sexual abuse had been signalled to Danneels going back to the 1990s, but Danneels himself recently denied being involved in any cover-up.
"I cannot recall such a conversation and it would astonish me if I had paid no attention to such a message or had forgotten it," Danneels said.
"I never made the slightest attempt to cover up the abuses of Bishop Roger Vangheluwe in a cloak of secrecy," the former Belgian primate insisted.
A victim of a paedophile priest in French-speaking Wallonia has also accused Danneels' successor as the leader of Belgium's Catholics, Andre-Joseph Leonard, of covering up an abuser and keeping him for five years at his post.
"We did as much as we could at the time, removing the priest involved from all of the pastoral functions that would have put him in contact with children," Leonard's spokesman Eric De Beukelaer recently maintained.
Leonard has vowed a zero-tolerance approach to the issue since taking over as archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels.
In a bid to restore confidence within an increasingly sceptical flock, Belgium's bishops came together in May to publicly beg forgiveness from victims both for the actions of paedophile priests and for the Church's "silence" down the years.
Paedophile priest scandals and allegations of high-level cover-ups have surged again since last year across Europe, the United States and Brazil.
Earlier this month, Pope Benedict issued his clearest apology yet amid the debilitating flood of complaints.
"We... insistently beg forgiveness from God and from the persons involved, while promising to do everything possible to ensure that such abuse will never occur again," he said.
The pope himself has faced allegations that, as archbishop of Munich and later as the Vatican's chief morals enforcer, he helped to protect predator priests.
He has condemned paedophile priests several times, and met with abuse victims in Australia, the United States and Malta.
© 2010 AFP
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