BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A Belgian Catholic Church commission monitoring complaints over sexual abuse of children by priests disbanded on Monday after police seized all its files and a computer in raids denounced by the Vatican.
The unprecedented raids last week on the commission’s office in Leuven and a Church center and former archbishop’s home in Mechelen prompted a sharp reaction from Pope Benedict, who called them “shocking and deplorable.
Government officials have defended the raids, which included drilling into cathedral tombs looking for hidden files, saying the Church had been too slow to investigate sexual abuse in its ranks.
The raids upset and embarrassed the Belgian Church still reeling from the resignation of Bruges Bishop Roger Vangheluwe in April after admitting he had sexually abused a boy. That prompted a wave of abuse complaints to the commission.
“They have literally emptied us out and taken the ground from under our feet,” said commission chairman Peter Adriaenssens, who lost all 475 dossiers on abuse allegations.
A statement from the commission said its “fundamental basis — the necessary trust between the justice authorities and the commission — has been shattered.” Commission members would quit on Thursday, leaving the bishops to decide what to do next.
Adriaenssens, who early this year took over a commission that had received only about 30 complaints in its previous 10 years of work, was bitter about the raids.
“We simply served as bait,” he told Belgian newspapers. “They should only have done that if they thought we would commit fraud or hide things. But I made a point of saying we would work in full transparency.”
Justice Minister Stefaan De Clerck said abuse was clearly a judicial matter.
“This commission took its time, maybe too much time, to get organized,” he told RTBF television on Sunday. It was time for the justice authorities to take action, he said.
The raid on the apartment of Cardinal Godfried Danneels and searches through tombs of two of his predecessors hinted at a suspicion that abuse cases during his 30 years as Belgium’s top Catholic bishop may have been covered up.
Danneels, one of the leading cardinals in the Catholic Church, retired from his archbishop’s post in January.
The raids saw police drill into two tombs in the crypt of the Mechelen cathedral and insert tiny cameras to search for files that might be hidden there.
Adriaenssens has said about 50 of the 475 dossiers confiscated by police mentioned Danneels, who has denied any wrongdoing and showed police the way to the crypt when he was detained with other Belgian bishops last week.
Allegations of sexual abuse of minors have haunted the Roman Catholic Church in Europe since two damning government reports in Ireland last year exposed the extent of the scandals there.
The Belgian Church has apologized for its silence on abuse cases in the past and Archbishop Leonard has promised a policy of zero tolerance toward predator priests.
Child abuse is a particularly sensitive issue in Belgium, where perceived police incompetence over pedophile killer Marc Dutroux in the 1990s provoked mass protests.
Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop, Antonia van de Velde and Tom Heneghan, editing by Janet Lawrence