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Belgian church mulls legal action after paedophilia raids

A Catholic archdiocese could sue the Belgian state over police raids on church property carried out as part of a paedophilia investigation, a lawyer said Saturday, amid Vatican indignation.

Fernand Keuleneer, lawyer for the Mechelen-Brussels archdiocese, said he had his “doubts” over whether the authorities’ actions on Thursday were legal.

His comments came as the Vatican returned to the attack over the police raids on Thursday against a background of fresh claims of child abuse by members of the clergy.

Vatican number two Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said the detention of a number of bishops during the raid was “serious and unbelievable”, comparing it to the practices of communist regimes.

Keuleneer, speaking by phone, told AFP he hoped the police action was “more than a fishing expedition because if that’s what it is then this would not be a legitimate purpose for a search.”

He said he wasn’t aware of “any impending charges” as a result of the raids.

On top of that is the matter of proportionality “what the (investigating) judge has indication of must be of a rather explosive nature in order to justify” the action, he added.

He also took exception to the television cameras which he said arrived at the scene half an hour before the police, raising questions on whether the raid was carried out with the “necessary levels of discretion and confidentiality.

“If we come finally to the conclusion that this was not legitimate and not proportional then we will take legal action, at least I will advise my client to take legal action against the Belgian state,” he concluded.

Keuleneer said the police had drilled into the tombs of two cardinals at Mechelen cathedral north of Brussels, in order to send down cameras, and broke away part of one tomb.

Phones, computers, the archdiocese accounting system and other items were taken, and had not yet been returned, making it impossible for the church authorities to run the archdiocese properly, he added.

Father Eric De Beukelaer, spokesman for the Mechelen-Brussels archdiocese, said something that the Belgian church particularly regretted was searching the premises of a committee probing priest paedophilia allegations.

“This is putting the work of the committee and its confidentiality at risk,” he said of the body which has been handling a flood of complaints, often in the strictest confidence, since the Belgian church’s longest-serving bishop, 73-year-old Roger Vangheluwe, resigned in April after admitting sexually abusing a boy for years.

The head of the Roman Catholic Church in Belgium, Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard, complained in an interview to Vatican Radio, that the search and the detention of the bishops had given the impression that they were suspects.

Earlier the archbishop said “it looks like the police were searching for the Da Vinci code,” a reference to the Dan Brown’s church mystery thriller.

The Brussels prosecutor has said the raid followed a string of accusations “denouncing abuse of minors committed by a certain number of Church figures.”

The authorities also seized computer files at the home of Belgium’s top cardinal for the last 20 years, Leonard’s predecessor Godfried Danneels.

The Roman Catholic Church in Belgium has endured some of the worst of the worldwide child sex scandal besetting the Vatican, having been rocked in April when Vangheluwe resigned from his Bruges post after admitting sexually abusing a boy.

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.

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.