A little more than a fortnight ago, Pope Benedict XVI asked for "forgiveness from God" regarding the sex-abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church. His words aimed to turn the tide of public opinion back in favor of the church during what is turning out to be the Vatican's annus horribilis a year punctuated by revelations of horrific abuse by pedophile priests in Ireland, the U.S., Austria and Germany that took place during the papacy of John Paul II and earlier.
But when a Belgian bishops' meeting was raided last week by police investigating renewed claims of child sexual abuse, the Vatican responded with outrage that seemed at odds with the apparent contrition in mid-June. The Pope himself described the searches as "surprising and deplorable" in a letter to the head of the Belgian Church, Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, on June 27. Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone went further, saying the Belgian police's detention of bishops for nine hours without access to their cell phones was "serious and unbelievable" and akin to the practices of communist regimes. And after the police drilled into the tombs of two Cardinals, Léonard likened the actions to a schlock crime thriller. "It's worthy of The Da Vinci Code," Léonard said.
In the incident in question on June 24, police sealed off St. Rumbold's Cathedral in Mechelen, north of Brussels, where the nine bishops were meeting, and carried away computers and hundreds of files. They drilled into the tombs of prelates Leo Jozef Suenens and Jozef-Ernest van Roey who headed the Belgian Catholic Church from 1926 to 1979 and poked a camera inside to look for hidden documents. At the same time, they raided the home and seized the laptop of Cardinal Godfried Danneels, who was the head of the Belgian Catholic Church for three decades until Léonard succeeded him in January.
The police also went to nearby Leuven to search the premises of the independent church body that is investigating hundreds of cases of clerical abuse. That prompted the resignation of the commission's head, Peter Adriaenssens, who said the raid effectively undermined his inquiry, as the files from all 475 of his cases had been hauled away by the police. Defending the raid, the Brussels prosecutor said it followed a string of accusations "alleging abuse of minors committed by a certain number of church figures." Police insiders say the raid went ahead after police concluded the church had not met its obligations under a 1990s agreement requiring it to refer abuse cases to prosecutors.
Indeed, some Belgium commentators accused the Church hierarchy of using Adriaenssens' commission as a buffer to slow down criminal prosecutors. "This is the boomerang returning to hit an institution that thought, naively or presumptuously, that it could benefit from the privilege of washing its dirty linen in private," said the Belgian daily Le Soir in an editorial. "A sick body can only be cured by an efficient doctor."
Belgium became the center of the unfolding global sex-abuse scandal when, in April, the veteran bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, stepped down after admitting to sexually abusing a boy in the 1980s, becoming the first European bishop to resign under such circumstances. The case prompted 400 complainants to come forward and give their own stories of alleged abuse at the hands of Belgian priests to Adriaenssens' commission. As shock waves spread, Belgian bishops last month collectively asked for forgiveness from the victims of sexual abuse, and for the Church's silence on the abuse, in an open letter to the Catholic community in Belgium.
The sex-abuse scandal comes during a period of transition for the church in Belgium, which is one of Europe's more liberal countries but has a majority that is, nominally at least, Catholic. Léonard has promised a policy of zero tolerance, but he is also trying to steer toward a new direction, one that reflects Pope Benedict's belief that the church should return to its core values. Indeed, his views are so close to the Pope's that he is known as "Belgium's Ratzinger." He frequently conducts Mass in Latin, and three years ago he said gay people were "abnormal," with "a blockage in their normal psychological development."
"The church in Belgium has had to deal with lots of demons over the past few months," says Dave Sinardet, a political scientist at Antwerp University. "Léonard stands for a much more strict and conservative Catholicism, and this is driving people away. They don't see themselves in the church anymore."
Belgium is not the only country where the Catholic Church is in a crisis. But against a backdrop of a general decline in churchgoing and a specific scandal over sex abuse, the attempts by the Belgian Catholic Church and the Vatican to reassert their authority may backfire. "People will ask why the Pope feels the need to intervene in the affair of a sovereign state. They will ask if it's normal to leave this investigation to what is basically a private organization," says Marco Martiniello, a politics lecturer at the University of Liège. In the current, febrile climate surrounding the Catholic Church, the Pope may find it best to cease his complaints and simply let Belgian justice run its course.