11 Dec 2010

Belgian police raid Catholic headquarters and independent abuse commission over concerns of continuing cover-up by church leaders

The Guardian - U.K. June 24, 2010

Catholic headquarters in Belgium focus of police raids in sex abuse cases

Belgian police sources say church has been withholding information from its independent inquiry into sex abuse scandal

by Ian Traynor in Brussels

The Roman Catholic church was once again at the centre of a child abuse scandal today when police raided the headquarters of the church hierarchy in Belgium. They carried away computers and hundreds of files, amid rumours that church leaders were continuing to cover up abuse cases despite a public plea for forgiveness last month.

Belgian officers today sealed off and searched the headquarters of the church at Mechelen, north of Brussels, where the Belgian bishops' conference was in session, with the papal nuncio taking part. They also searched the home of Cardinal Godfried Danneels, until last year Belgium's most senior prelate, who enjoys a reputation for being a liberal.

In nearby Leuven, east of Brussels, police also searched the premises of the independent church commission investigating hundreds of cases of alleged molestation by clergymen. They took all 475 files belonging to the commission, prompting bewilderment and panic among investigators and victims of sexual abuse.

"The police have a number of accusations connected with the sexual abuse of children within the church," said Jean-Marc Meilleur, a Brussels police spokesman. "The searches are the result of the investigation we started recently. We are collecting evidence material."

The raids centred on the palace of Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard, head of the Catholic church in Belgium, on the ancient town's St Rombout's cathedral, and on the residence of the former head of the church in Belgium, Cardinal Danneels.

The long-running but moribund commission in Leuven was resurrected this year to investigate the torrent of allegations that have surfaced, especially since April when one of the most senior clergymen in Belgium, Archbishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, resigned after admitting he had been abusing a boy for years.

Police declined to say whether any of the individuals at the centre of today's raids were direct suspects or whether the searches concerned evidence affecting other cases.

The commission of inquiry is well-respected and is led by Peter Adriaenssens, one of Belgium's top child abuse experts, whose office has received hundreds of complaints this year and who has threatened to resign should his work be impeded by the church hierarchy. He emerged as a national figure following the notorious Marc Dutroux paedophilia and murder case in 1996 and runs one of the country's most respected child abuse centres.

He voiced outrage and shock at the police actions, saying he had been given no warning, and would now struggle to deliver a report on clerical sexual abuse he was preparing for October. Adriaenssens was in Amsterdam in the Netherlands on Wednesday when his offices were raided. He said that all files in his investigation, concerning 475 cases, had been taken away by the police.

"All day we've been getting mails and calls from victims in panic," he said. "They agreed that we do a report, but they did not want others to see the material … No one asked us a single question. We have no idea why this happened now."

Adriaenssens suggested that a wave of "paranoia" had developed around the flood of allegations coming to light in recent months in Belgium. "There were rumours that the commission was having secret talks with the bishops. Perhaps the investigating magistrate let himself be led by this paranoia."

He added that the raids had thrown into question whether his commission would be able to continue its work. It was set up years ago but had vegetated until this year when the sexual abuse allegations and revelations spread rapidly across the world. The commission's previous head had complained of a lack of co-operation from the church authorities.

Police sources told the Flemish newspaper De Standaard that the raids were carried out because of suspicions that church leaders were failing to hand over all the necessary materials to the commission of inquiry. That was not confirmed by Adriaenssens.

Last month the Belgian bishops' conference issued a pastoral letter pleading for forgiveness both for the sexual abuse by many clergy and for the cover-ups and "silence" that then followed.

"Through the silence priority was given to the reputation of the church institution or the clergyman over the dignity of the child as victim," said the letter.

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BBC News - June 25, 2010

Vatican 'indignant' over Belgium police raids

The Vatican has expressed shock at raids, including the "violation" of a cathedral crypt, by Belgian police investigating alleged child sex abuse.

As well as searching a couple of main Church offices and a cardinal's home, police had drilled holes in two archbishops' tombs, said the Church.

Prosecutors said the raids were over alleged "abuse of minors committed by a certain number of Church figures".

Belgium is one of many countries where the Church has been hit by sex scandal.

In April, the Bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, resigned after admitting he had sexually abused a boy more than 20 years ago.

'Da Vinci Code'

The Vatican has summoned the Belgian ambassador to the Holy See to voice anger over Thursday's raids.

Police in Leuven seized nearly 500 files and a computer from the offices of a Church commission investigating allegations of sex abuse.

They also searched the Church's headquarters, the Brussels archdiocese in Mechelen, north of the Belgian capital.

Bishops holding a meeting there were barred from leaving the premises for several hours and had their mobile phones confiscated, said Church officials.

Investigators made holes in the tombs of two former Belgian primates at Mechelen cathedral, and sent down cameras in search of any hidden documents, without success, said a Church spokesman.

In a statement, the Vatican expressed "shock over how the searches were carried out by Belgian judicial authorities and indignation over the violation of the graves of the Cardinals Jozef-Ernest Van Roey and Leon-Joseph Suenens," reports AFP news agency.

The raids had been the stuff of "crime novels and The Da Vinci Code", said the Church's leader in Belgium, Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard.

"We are surprised it went as far as drilling into tombs in the cathedral," he told a news conference in Brussels on Friday.

A spokesman for the Belgian prosecutor in the Belgian capital told news agency Reuters that investigators partially opened one tomb in the cathedral after someone mentioned work had recently been carried out on the grave's exterior.

Officers also raided the nearby home of the recently retired Archbishop of Belgium, Cardinal Godfried Danneels.

He was not interrogated but a personal computer and some paperwork was confiscated.

The Vatican said the raids had led to the "violation of confidentiality of precisely those victims for whom the raids were carried out".

The Catholic Church in Belgium has apologised for its silence on abuse cases in the past and Archbishop Leonard has promised a policy of zero tolerance.

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Google News - AFP June 26, 2010

Belgian church mulls legal action after paedophilia raids

BRUSSELS — A Catholic archdiocese could sue the Belgian state over police raids on church property carried out as part of a paedophilia investigation, a lawyer said Saturday, amid Vatican indignation.

Fernand Keuleneer, lawyer for the Mechelen-Brussels archdiocese, said he had his "doubts" over whether the authorities' actions on Thursday were legal.

His comments came as the Vatican returned to the attack over the police raids on Thursday against a background of fresh claims of child abuse by members of the clergy.

Vatican number two Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said the detention of a number of bishops during the raid was "serious and unbelievable", comparing it to the practices of communist regimes.

Keuleneer, speaking by phone, told AFP he hoped the police action was "more than a fishing expedition because if that's what it is then this would not be a legitimate purpose for a search."

He said he wasn't aware of "any impending charges" as a result of the raids.

On top of that is the matter of proportionality "what the (investigating) judge has indication of must be of a rather explosive nature in order to justify" the action, he added.

He also took exception to the television cameras which he said arrived at the scene half an hour before the police, raising questions on whether the raid was carried out with the "necessary levels of discretion and confidentiality.

"If we come finally to the conclusion that this was not legitimate and not proportional then we will take legal action, at least I will advise my client to take legal action against the Belgian state," he concluded.

Keuleneer said the police had drilled into the tombs of two cardinals at Mechelen cathedral north of Brussels, in order to send down cameras, and broke away part of one tomb.

Phones, computers, the archdiocese accounting system and other items were taken, and had not yet been returned, making it impossible for the church authorities to run the archdiocese properly, he added.

Father Eric De Beukelaer, spokesman for the Mechelen-Brussels archdiocese, said something that the Belgian church particularly regretted was searching the premises of a committee probing priest paedophilia allegations.

"This is putting the work of the committee and its confidentiality at risk," he said of the body which has been handling a flood of complaints, often in the strictest confidence, since the Belgian church's longest-serving bishop, 73-year-old Roger Vangheluwe, resigned in April after admitting sexually abusing a boy for years.

The head of the Roman Catholic Church in Belgium, Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard, complained in an interview to Vatican Radio, that the search and the detention of the bishops had given the impression that they were suspects.

Earlier the archbishop said "it looks like the police were searching for the Da Vinci code," a reference to the Dan Brown's church mystery thriller.

The Brussels prosecutor has said the raid followed a string of accusations "denouncing abuse of minors committed by a certain number of Church figures."

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 child sex scandal besetting the Vatican, having been rocked in April when Vangheluwe resigned from his Bruges post after admitting sexually abusing a boy.

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.

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.

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The Guardian - U.K. June 27, 2010

Pope causes outrage for condemning church abuse raids in Belgium

Victims groups say Vatican criticism of police shameful, as pontiff calls raid deplorable and demands church role in investigations

Tom Kington in Rome

Groups representing the victims of clerical abuse tonight expressed outrage after the pope criticised raids on the Catholic church by Belgian police.

Last week, police raided the home of a retired bishop, opened the grave of at least one archbishop and detained Belgium's nine current serving bishops as they met, seizing their mobile phones and only releasing them after nine hours.

Pope Benedict described the raids by officers investigating abuse claims as "surprising and deplorable" and demanded that the church be allowed a role in inquiries into child molesters in its ranks.

In a message to the head of the Belgian bishops' conference, Monsignor André-Joseph Léonard, the pontiff condemned the raids and offered his support to the bishops "in this sad moment".

"I want to express, dear brother in the episcopate, as well as to all the bishops of Belgium, my closeness and solidarity in this moment of sadness, in which, with certain surprising and deplorable methods, searches were carried out," he said.

"I hope that justice will follow its course while guaranteeing the rights of individuals and institutions, respecting the rights of victims, [and] acknowledging those who undertake to collaborate with it."

The Vatican has also protested to Belgium's ambassador to the Holy See. Yesterday, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, said: "There are no precedents for this, not even under communist regimes."

But the raids were welcomed by the American clerical abuse victims group Snap. "Vatican officials who criticise the Belgian police raid of the Brussels church hierarchy should be ashamed of themselves," said Joelle Casteix of Snap. "While Roman church officials talk about stopping abuse, Belgian police officials take action to stop abuse."

As cases of abuse by priests have emerged throughout Europe this year, the Belgian church has apologised for failing to root out abusers in the past and promised a crackdown.

On Friday, the pope appointed Monsignor Jozef De Kesel as the bishop of Bruges to replace Roger Vangheluwe, 73, who resigned in April over abusing a boy. Vangheluwe was the first European bishop to step down after confessing to abuse.

As part of their investigation into recent claims of abuse, police last week drilled into the tombs of two archbishops at the cathedral in Mechelen, north of Brussels, using cameras to look for hidden documents, a church official said. Investigators said only one tomb had been opened.

Léonard condemned the raid as being inspired by "crime novels and the Da Vinci Code".

Police took documents and a computer from the home of his predecessor, Godfried Danneels, and seized documents from an independent panel investigating 500 cases of suspected abuse by priests.

After initially treating the abuse revelations emerging in Europe as a plot to discredit the church, Vatican officials have increasingly admitted the need for it to co-operate more closely with police.

But in his reaction to the Belgian raids, the pope stressed that abuse within the church needed to be handled by both civil and canon law, "respecting their reciprocal specificity and autonomy".

Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian Bishops' Conference, went further, claiming the police investigation went "beyond the legitimate requirements of justice" and was the sign of a secular government's "desire to attack the church in its entirety" by a secular government.

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BBC - U.K. June 28, 2010

Belgium Church abuse panel quits in protest at raids

A Catholic Church-backed commission of inquiry into clerical sexual abuse in Belgium has announced it is shutting down in protest at police raids.

Commission head Peter Adriaenssens said the commission had been used as "bait" by state prosecutors.

Offices were searched last week and all of the panel's 475 case files removed.

Many of the files removed contained information from alleged abuse victims who had spoken in confidence.

Mr Adriaenssens, a child psychiatrist who only took over eight weeks ago, expressed concern at what could have motivated the authorities.

"They could only act in that way with the sentiment that we were in the wrong or that we were trying to conceal the cases," he said.

"This while I made a point of working in complete transparency."

Three raids were carried out on Thursday at the request of the Brussels prosecutor's office.

Searches were conducted at the archbishop's palace and the home of a former archbishop.

A number of bishops were detained for questioning and their phones, computers and other materials confiscated, a lawyer for the Mechelen-Brussels archdiocese said.

The Belgian Church was shaken in April when the Bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, resigned and admitted to having sexually abused a boy before and after becoming a bishop.

'Panic calls'

"I'm mostly shocked for all these people who gave us their trust," said Mr Adriaenssens.

"And up until [Wednesday] evening, if they'd asked me is it possible that they [the police] would arrive and take everything away, just take everything away, I would have reassured them [that this would not happen]."

He added that people who had spoken to the commission in confidence were "panicking".

"We received e-mails, telephone calls in the past few hours from people who are panicking about what will happen with their private details," he said

"Will their parents find out? Will they read their story in the newspapers? Will their spouse, who wasn't really aware, now find out via the media or the justice department?"

On Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI denounced the raids as "deplorable".

Belgian Justice Minister Stefaan De Clerck responded to criticism robustly, saying normal procedures were followed.

"We must not turn this into a diplomatic incident," he said.

"The bishops were treated completely normally... and it is false to say that they received no food or drink."

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Google News - AFP July 6, 2010

Police question Belgian cardinal in child abuse probe

BRUSSELS — Police questioned the ex-head of Belgium's Catholic Church, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, for over 10 hours Tuesday as part of a probe into allegations of priestly child abuse, his spokesman said.

The 77-year-old cardinal entered the office of the federal judicial police in Brussels in the morning and left at around 19:45 pm, his spokesman Hans Geybels told AFP.

Danneels has been accused by a retired priest of shielding predator priests when he headed the country's Catholic Church from 1979 to 2009 but he has denied any cover-up.

Late last month, police raided the Church's headquarters, seized computer files from Danneels's home and even searched a cathedral crypt in an operation that angered the Vatican.

During police questioning, Danneels was confronted with the former head of a Belgian church-backed commission probing hundreds of reported cases of child abuse by priests.

"I cannot and do not want to say anything on the contents of this confrontation. Justice must now do its work," Peter Adriaenssens, a psychologist, told reporters after leaving the police building.

"Regarding Cardinal Danneels' state of mind, he is clearly in a state of shock," he said.

"It is very difficult for him to know that a good number of people thought that he knew and did nothing. He is surprised that such serious facts are being linked to him," Adriaenssens said.

The legality of last month's raid has been questioned by lawyers for Danneels as well as the archbishop of Brussels-Mechelen, whose palace was also raided.

They argue that it compromises the inviolability of the Vatican.

Belgian Justice Minister Stefaan De Clerck, while upholding the independence of the judge handling the case, has criticised the manner in which the raid was conducted at the seat of the country's Catholic Church.

The Roman Catholic Church in Belgium has endured some of the worst of the worldwide paedophilia scandal to beset the Vatican.

In April 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.

A victim of a paedophile priest in French-speaking Wallonia has also accused Danneels's successor as the leader of Belgium's Catholics, Andre-Joseph Leonard, of covering up an abuser and keeping him for five years at his post.

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."

Paedophile priest scandals and allegations of high-level cover-ups have surged again since last year across Europe, the United States and Brazil.

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