The police raid of the Belgian Catholic Church in the search for evidence for clerical sex abuse last Thursday has caused such an outcry that even a committee set up by the church to hear victim complaints said it would close down in protest after police seized all its records.
During the raid, Belgian authorities searched the grave of at least one cardinal, detained the country’s bishops (at the time attending their plenary meeting) for 10 hours, confiscated their cell phones and forbade them from leaving the premises even after questioning.
The church said they also broke privacy laws by seizing the committee’s archives and raiding the home of Cardinal Godfried Danneels, the recently retired Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels who led the Belgian church for many years.
Pope Benedict XVI issued a statement Saturday, calling the police search “surprising and deplorable” and stressing that “these serious matters should be dealt with by both civil law and canon law, while respecting the specific nature and autonomy of each.” He expressed his hope that justice run its course, respecting the rights of victims, other persons, and institutions.
The Vatican likewise spoke of its “astonishment” over the raid and its “indignation over the violation of the graves.” Belgium’s ambassador to the Holy See was summoned to the Vatican over the weekend.
The Brussels prosecutor said the search was ordered after a string of accusations of pedophilia and “a certain number of church figures.” In April, Belgium’s longest-serving bishop, Roger Vangheluwe, resigned after admitting to sexually molesting a boy two decades ago. The country was also one of the first countries to be rocked by some horrific clerical sex abuse scandals in the 1990s.
Justice Minister Stefaan De Clerck defended the action, saying it was within the law and that the bishops were “treated normally.” The criticism of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State, who compared the raid to communism, was “based on incorrect information,” De Clerck said on Belgium television. But when asked whether the raid was disproportionate, he said it will be “assessed retrospectively.”
Although authorities probably acted because of bishops’ inaction in dealing with sexual abuse in the past, Belgian canon lawyers say that seizing all church archives appears to breach an article of the country’s constitution.
And writing on the blog Mirror of Justice, American international lawyer and Jesuit priest Robert John Araujo said Belgium has also yet to offer an explanation why it has not honored the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — a treaty to which it is party. Article 17(1) of the accord specifies that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honor and reputation.”
Belgium’s bishops have already consulted lawyers to decide whether to take legal proceedings against police chiefs and perhaps even the public prosecutor.
Writing in the June 28 edition of Corriere della Sera, Andrea Riccardi, founder of the worldwide Catholic lay community Sant’Egidio, stressed the church is not wishing to cover up any crimes, but simply asking that its sovereignty be respected. He also noted how Catholicism has been vital in keeping the country united since its two linguistically divided regions, French Walloon and Dutch Flemish, formed Belgium in 1830.
The Catholic Church, he wrote, formed the “soul” of the country in resisting German occupation during the world wars and today the bishops conference “is one of the few institutions that have resisted the separation of the Flemish and the French.”
Vittorio Messori, author of the 1995 book "Crossing the Threshold of Hope" with John Paul II, likewise noted the country’s deep Catholic roots, but said today it “boasts of being one of the most secular countries, where the marginalization of Catholics is growing every day.”
He pointed out that the marriage of the two linguistic peoples has only lasted as long as the country has been Catholic. “Now the adhesive [of Catholicism] has diluted, Belgium has become an AN UNGOVERNABLE PRETENCE.” Belgium has had a series of weak governments and came close to partition in 2008 when political leaders were unable to form a government for three months.
Reflecting humorously on what he saw as the absurdity of last week’s raid, Messori wondered first why there was a need to confiscate the bishops’ cell phones. “To prevent what?” he asked in a June 27 article for Corriere della Sera. “To stop the bishops calling for a blitz from the paratrooper section of the Vatican Swiss Guard to free them?”
But he said the Belgian judiciary has set itself up for the most “devastating ridicule” over its decision to search at least one cardinal’s grave in Mechelen cathedral — a move emulating the plot of a Dan Brown novel. They show themselves to be “obsessed with riddles, mysteries, secret codes: always and uniquely Catholic, of course,” Messori wrote. “The inquisitors, obviously already believing in them, have fallen for the joke of a prankster: ‘Go to the old cathedral, go down to the dark crypt, open the venerated tombs of the cardinals: there you will find the scrolls which show the plot of the current priests, followers of paedophile cults, as were their predecessors, the Templars . . . ’”
Riccardi partly blamed the Church itself for the raid, noting that in recent decades the Church in Belgium has become “quieter and retreated” in the face of secularization and assaults on institutions. However, despite the shadows, he added, “there are reservoirs of hope in a country in difficulty, because Belgium needs hope and a future.”
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