Belgium hits back at Vatican over paedophilia raids

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Belgium and the Vatican are on a collision course after the Holy See accused the Belgian police of using communist tactics in their paedophilia raids on Catholic bishops last week. Belgium’s Foreign Minister told RNW that the Vatican should “react with balance” after its outspoken criticism of last week’s detention of senior clerics by the police.

Belgian police raided a bishop’s meeting in Mechelen near Brussels last Thursday amid fresh claims of child abuse by the Catholic Church. Investigators confiscated mobile phones, computers and also seized the computer files of a former cardinal.

The raids triggered an instant outcry from the Vatican, with the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone calling the detentions “serious and unbelievable”. The Cardinal also accused investigators of holding the clerics for nine hours “without food and water” in methods “unprecedented even in communist regimes.”

The Belgian Foreign Minister, Steven Vanackere, underlined the Belgian judiciary’s independence from the Church and its freedom to investigate.

“It’s good to [keep in mind] very important principles of the state of law. [There are] very elementary principles of having a separation of powers and accepting that the judiciary has to do its work,” Mr Vanackere told RNW. “That’s crucial for every democratic state.”

“Deplorable methods
The Brussels prosecutor’s office said the raid followed a string of accusations “denouncing abuse of minors committed by a certain number of Church figures.” Belgium’s Catholic Church has been in turmoil ever since April when a string of revelations of child abuse by its priests which saw 73-year old Roger Vangheluwe, its longest-serving bishop, resign after admitting to sexually abusing a boy for years.

On Sunday, the Pope wrote a message of support to Andre-Joseph Leonard, Archbishop of Mechelen and the head of the Belgian bishops’ conference, blasting the use of “deplorable methods”.

Mr Vanackere said he understood the concerns:

“It is perfectly normal that on diplomatic level explanations are asked…. but if it emerges that disproportionate measures were used, then it’s a problem for the Belgian judiciary not for the Vatican.”

Kris Peeters, the Minister-President of Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region where the Mechelen diocese is situated, added:

“I can understand that it’s a very emotional case, but we must be calm and wait for the explanations from the judges and investigating judges. It’s very important that should be a total investigation of the possible crimes committed and to… respect all the [parties] involved.”

His comments came just hours after the mass resignation of the Catholic Church-backed commission set up to probe hundreds of reported cases of abuses. The commission’s chief, Peter Andriaenssens, stood down owing, he said, to a breach of confidentiality.

“We are pulling out. The debate must now take place between victims, political leaders, the judiciary, the church and public opinion,” said Mr Andriaenssens.

Belgian Justice Minister Stefaan De Clerck said in a statement that urgent talks would be held to look into “the difficulties resulting from the treatment by the judicial system of facts brought to its knowledge by the Catholic Church commission.”

Investigations into church child abuse are also underway in the Netherlands, Germany, Ireland and North America following a domino-like sequence of paedophilia allegations this spring.