VATICAN CITY — The Holy Father was quick to deplore it, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone described it as something even communist regimes wouldn’t do, and Belgium’s bishops denounced it as violating their constitutional rights.
The police raid of Church offices in Belgium June 24 to search for evidence of clerical sex abuse has caused such an outcry that even a committee set up by the Church to hear victim complaints said yesterday it would close down in protest over the police seizure of all its records.
The Belgian bishops’ conference said police violated the tombs of Cardinals Jozef-Ernest Van Roey and Leon-Joseph Suenens, deceased archbishops of Mechelen-Brussels, drilling small holes to insert cameras into the grave sites to search for cached documents. For 10 hours, authorities detained the country’s bishops who were holding their plenary meeting, 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.
Pope Benedict XVI issued a statement June 26, 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 runs its course, respecting the rights of victims, other persons and institutions. A statement from the Vatican Secretariat of State likewise spoke of its “astonishment” over the raid and its “indignation over the violation of the graves.” Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Holy See’s foreign minister, summoned Belgium’s ambassador to provide an explanation.
The Brussels prosecutor said the search was ordered after a string of accusations of pedophilia against “a certain number of Church figures.” Belgium was one of the first countries to be rocked by some very disturbing clerical sex-abuse scandals in the 1990s.In April, the country’s longest-serving bishop, Roger Vangheluwe, resigned after admitting to sexually molesting a boy two decades ago.
Justice Minister Stefaan De Clerck defended the action, saying on Belgian television over the weekend that it was within the law and that the bishops were “treated normally.” He said the raid will be “assessed retrospectively” to see if it was disproportionate. The country’s foreign minister, Steven Vanackere, told the U.K.’s The Independent newspaper June 29 that the Church should not try to impede the work of the judiciary and should “react with balance.”
Belgian canon lawyers say that seizing all Church archives appears to breach an article of the country’s constitution. Writing on the blog Mirror of Justice, the American Jesuit and international law expert Father Robert John Araujo said Belgium has also yet to explain 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: “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’ conference made a point of reiterating “its firm condemnation of all sinful and criminal acts of abuse of minors by members of the Church, as well as the need to repair and confront such acts in accordance with the requirements of justice and the teachings of the Gospel.” But it is consulting lawyers to decide whether to take legal action against police chiefs and perhaps even the public prosecutor.
Writing in the June 28 edition of Corriere della Sera, Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Sant’Egidio Community, stressed the Church does not want to cover up any crimes, but is simply asking that its sovereignty be respected. He added that Catholicism has been vital in keeping Belgium 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, co-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 in a June 27 article for Corriere della Sera that the marriage of the two linguistic peoples has only lasted as long as the country has been Catholic: “Now [that] the adhesive [of Catholicism] has diluted, Belgium has become an ungovernable pretense.” Belgium has had a series of weak governments and came close to partition in 2008, when political leaders spent months trying to form a government.
Reflecting 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. “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 have set themselves up for the most “devastating ridicule” over the decision to search at least one cardinal’s grave in the 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 only 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 said that in recent decades the Belgian Church has become “quieter and retreated” in the face of secularization and assaults on institutions. However, despite the “shadows,” he said, “there are reservoirs of hope in a country in difficulty, because Belgium needs hope and a future.”
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.