By Pascal Mallet (AFP)
BRUSSELS — The Vatican on Friday angrily accused Belgian authorities of “violating” cardinals’ tombs during a cathedral raid by police investigating new child abuse claims against Roman Catholic clergy.
The Brussels prosecutor’s office admitted that a crypt was searched during a police search of the Mechelen cathedral near Brussels on Thursday.
Prosecutor’s spokeswoman Estelle Arpigny refused however to confirm complaints that the tombs of two cardinals had been tampered with.
“All I can say is that a vault was opened” during the investigation into new paedophilia claims, she told AFP.
Earlier Father Eric De Beukelaer, spokesman for the Mechelen-Brussels archbishop, said that “the tombs of Cardinals Suenens and Van Roey were drilled and a camera pushed in, apparently to see whether there were any hidden documents” linked to the paedophilia claims concerning Catholic clergy.
That search was unsuccessful, according to the Church spokesman.
The Vatican reacted indignantly to the report.
It voiced “astonishment over how the searches were carried out yesterday by Belgian judicial authorities and its indignation over the violation of the graves of the cardinals Jozef-Ernest Van Roey and Leon-Joseph Suenens.”
The current head of the Roman Catholic Church in Belgium, Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard, said he was “slightly surprised” at the raids in which the authorities had shown “perhaps excessive zeal.”
“The justice system does its work and it has the right to carry out searches. Nonetheless I find it slightly surprising that it went as far as rummaging around the tombs … and that all the bishops were held until evening,” Leonard told reporters in Brussels.
Police raided several buildings of the Mechelen-Brussels archdiocese, including the episcopal palace at Mechelen, north of the Belgian capital, as bishops were meeting with a Vatican envoy.
The Brussels prosecutors said the raid, involving dozens of officers and investigators, followed a string of accusations “denouncing abuse of minors committed by a certain number of Church figures.”
The search focused on letters exchanged between alleged victims of paedophile priests and Church authorities.
The police confiscated the bishops’ phones for several hours and prevented them from leaving the building during the search.
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 paedophilia scandal besetting the Vatican, having been rocked in April when its longest-serving bishop, 73-year-old Roger Vangheluwe, resigned from his Bruges post after admitting sexually abusing a boy for years.
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.
A Belgian committee probing priest paedophilia allegations has been flooded with hundreds of new complaints since Vangheluwe resigned.
The resignation was the first by a Catholic bishop admitting child abuse crimes.
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.
Archbishop Leonard was speaking to reporters Friday as he introduced Jozef De Kesel, named by the Vatican to replace the disgraced Vangheluwe.
Paedophilia scandals and allegations of cover-ups have rocked the Church in Europe and the Americas in recent months.
Pope Benedict XVI himself has faced allegations that, as archbishop of Munich and later as the Vatican’s chief morals enforcer, he helped to protect predator priests.