The Church’s annus horribilis continues: last Thursday Belgian police sealed off St Rumbold’s Cathedral in Mechelen, detaining the nine bishops who were meeting there. They seized computers and hundreds of files and broke into the tombs of the anti-Nazi Cardinal van Roey and the Vatican II reformer Cardinal Suenens. The police also raided the home of the retired Cardinal Godfried Danneels and the offices of the Adriaenssens Commission, the body established by the Church to examine abuse allegations.
The raid was widely applauded by critics of the Catholic Church. It was about time, they said, that clerics were treated like any other suspected law-breakers. And they pointed out that until this year the Belgian Church had been in no hurry to investigate abuse accusations.
But the picture is more complicated than the Church’s critics will allow. The Belgian police also have an exceedly poor record of protecting children. They repeatedly failed to apprehend Marc Dutroux, one of the worst child abusers in modern European history. They have as yet offered no credible reason for violating the tombs of two revered Church leaders.
Those who complained to the Adriaenssens Commission believed that they were doing so in confidence. Some victims now fear that their allegations will be made public without their consent. This is why the commission decided to close this week and also why Benedict XVI wrote a letter to Archbishop Léonard condemning the police raid. The media presented the letter as an “attack” on the Belgian authorities but failed to convey its nuances. The letter robustly supported the investigation of all complaints against Belgian clergy.
We cannot properly judge the raid until we know precisely what information the Belgian police were acting on. But the burden is on them to explain how their actions will achieve justice for the abused.