BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgian investigators looking into sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests raided two main Church offices and the home of a former archbishop on Thursday, taking away computers and files in a search for evidence.
Police sealed off the offices of the Brussels archdiocese in Mechelen during a meeting of the country’s bishops there and barred them from leaving the premises or telephoning outside for nine hours while they searched, a Church spokesman said.
A spokesman for the prosecutor’s office said officers had also raided the nearby residence of Cardinal Godfried Danneels, the former archbishop who stepped down in January as head of the Belgian Church after holding that position since 1979. He was not interrogated but his computer was confiscated.
In Leuven, police searched the office of a Church commission tracking complaints and compiling evidence about clerical sexual abuse of minors and took away all 475 dossiers and the computer of commission chairman Peter Andriaenssens.
“These are searches based on some allegations made to the Brussels prosecutor denouncing sexual abuse of minors by certain people in the Church,” the prosecutor’s spokesman said.
He said several clerics were targeted in the probe but gave no names.
Bishops conference spokesman Eric de Beukelaer said everyone, including members of the conference and staff of the archdiocese had been questioned.
“It was not a pleasant experience but everything proceeded in a correct manner,” he said.
He reaffirmed the Church’s readiness to cooperate with Belgian authorities on abuse cases, but expressed regret at the raid on the special commission tracking abuse complaints.
“This violates the right to confidentiality of victims who have contacted the commission,” he said. “Such acts greatly complicate the necessary and excellent work of the committee.”
Andriaenssens told a news conference was “really shocked” that all of its dossiers had been confiscated without any indication from investigators what the raid was about.
“Now we are a commission without dossiers, without materials. On Monday we will meet to decide what to do,” he said.
Judicial searches of church offices or homes of cardinals are extremely rare, even in cases of sexual abuse allegations. In several European countries, church and state have cooperated to set up panels to investigate the scandals.
Allegations of sexual abuse of minors have haunted the Catholic Church in Europe since two damning government reports in Ireland last year exposed the extent of the scandals there.
The shock of those two reports prompted victims of abuse, sometimes committed decades ago, to speak up in other countries, especially Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Austria.
The Belgian Church was rocked in April when the bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, suddenly resigned and admitted to sexual abuse before and after becoming a bishop.
The Belgian Church has apologised for its silence on abuse cases in the past and its new leader, Brussels Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard, has promised a policy of zero tolerance towards predator priests.
Vangheluwe was the first European bishop to resign for committing sexual abuse of minors himself. Three Irish bishops have quit because they mismanaged abuse cases in their dioceses and one German bishop stepped down when it became known that he used to beat schoolchildren in his care decades ago.
(Reporting by Ben Deighton and Tom Heneghan, editing by Noah Barkin)