Detaining church leaders and seizing church documents is not a step that should ever be taken lightly. But angry protestations from the Vatican aside — Pope Benedict XVI called the action “surprising and deplorable” — officials in Belgium seem well within their rights to press their investigation into child abuse at the hands of Catholic priests and coverups by high church officials.
“On Thursday, scores of police officers seized documents, computers, DVDs and CDs at the Belgian archbishop’s residence in Mechlin, north of Brussels, and detained a dozen Belgian bishops who were meeting there. Also detained for nine hours and told to surrender his cell phone was the Vatican’s envoy to Belgium.
Using power tools, police also opened up a prelate’s crypt in Mechlin’s St. Rombout Cathedral looking for documents. Simultaneously, police carted off 500 sexual abuse case files against Belgian clergy from the office of Adriaenssens’ panel in Leuven, just east of Brussels…
“It has failed badly in its treatment of many of these cases,” (Rik Torfs, a canon law expert) said. “The church always found their fate less important than its own prestige. In that sense, today’s papal protests are unimpressive.”
The sad truth is that the Catholic Church has exhausted what would otherwise be a strong public presumption that it could handle such cases itself. In April, for example, Belgium’s longest-serving bishop, Roger Vangheluwe, stepped down after confessing to sexually abusing a young boy as a priest as well as when he was serving as archbishop. That kind of repeated behavior, without intervention from the church, has forced the hand of Belgian civil authorities. Depending on what the investigation discovers, authorities in other countries may begin to take similar action.
UPDATE: I should also point out that the U.S. Supreme Court Monday cleared the way for civil lawsuits against the church for its handling of the abuse cases. As The Washington Post reports:
“In declining to stop a lawsuit that accuses the Vatican of conspiring with U.S. church officials to cover up sex abuse, the court took a rare step toward bringing the Holy See into a U.S. courtroom.
The justices, without comment, declined the Vatican’s appeal of a lower-court ruling that said it could be sued in a U.S. court on certain grounds. The decision came in a lawsuit filed by a man who said he was sexually abused as a teenager in 1965 by a priest in Portland, Ore. His attorneys said the church moved the priest among different assignments to cover up the abuse.
The Vatican argued that its status as a foreign country exempts it from being sued in a U.S. court, a longtime position that has helped shield it from such lawsuits.”