Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday accused Belgian police of “deplorable methods” for raiding a bishops’ meeting as part of a paedophilia 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 bishops were held 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 came amid new claims of child abuse by members of the Catholic Church in Belgium, one of the countries rocked by recent revelations of paedophilia by priests in Europe and North America.
Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said Saturday the detention of bishops during the raid was “serious and unbelievable”, comparing it to the practices of communist regimes.
The Vatican has voiced anger over the confiscation of phones, computers, the archdiocese’s accounting system and other items.
Belgian officials have stressed that investigating magistrates have full independence from the country’s political leaders.
But Belgium’s Justice Minister Stefaan De Clerck defended the police action in a series of television interviews on Sunday.
“The bishops were treated completely normally during the raid on the archdiocese and it is false to say that they received no food or drink,” he said.
De Clerck said the Vatican’s reaction was “a bit excessive” but was based on false information.
Bertone had claimed the bishops were held for nine hours without eating or drinking, but a spokesman for the Belgian archdiocese said Sunday the bishops had been well looked after.
Spokesman Eric De Beukelaer said that Bertone’s remarks were “personal comments made in the heat of the moment.”
The Belgian justice minister dismissed suggestions of a diplomatic incident with the Vatican.
But Fernand Keuleneer, lawyer for the Mechelen-Brussels archdiocese who has suggested it could sue the Belgian state over the raids, 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 Brussels prosecutor has said the raid followed a string of accusations “denouncing abuse of minors committed by a certain number of Church figures.”
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.
But in his letter Pope Benedict called for the respect of the Church’s internal procedures for tackling abuse.
He stressed that the police raid 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.
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 on Thursday 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.