Pope Deplores Belgian Sex Raids, Stresses Autonomy

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The pope on Sunday called the raids carried out by Belgian police investigating priestly sex abuse "surprising and deplorable" and voiced his support for the Belgian bishops who were held during the searches.

In a message of solidarity to the head of the Belgian bishops' conference, Pope Benedict XVI said justice must take its course but also asserted the right of the Catholic Church to investigate abuse alongside civil law enforcement authorities.

It was first time the pope himself had commented on the June 24 raids, and his message to Monsignor Andre Joseph Leonard capped a daily ratcheting up of the Vatican's criticism. On Saturday, the No. 2 Vatican official said the raids were unprecedented even under communism.

In the raids, police searched the home and former office of former Archbishop Godfried Danneels, taking documents and his personal computer. The raid came as the country's nine bishops were starting their monthly meeting; the men were held for nine hours and - along with diocese staff - had to surrender their cell phones.

Police and prosecutors have not said if Danneels is suspected of abuse himself or simply had records pertaining to allegations against another person.

Separately, police seized the records of an independent panel investigating sexual abuse by priests, some 500 cases in all. The head of the panel called the raid a huge violation of the privacy of people - mostly men now in their 60s and 70s - who have lived with the shame of abuse.

Benedict said he wanted to write to Belgium's bishops "at this sad moment" to express his solidarity "for the surprising and deplorable way in which the searches were conducted." He noted that the monthly meeting of the bishops was to discuss precisely clerical abuse.

He stressed that such crimes are handled by both civil and canon law "respecting their reciprocal specificity and autonomy."

"In that sense, I hope that justice takes its course, guaranteeing the fundamental rights of people and institutions with respect to the victims, recognizing without prejudice all those who are committed to collaborating with justice and refuting all that which seeks to obscure its noble goals," he wrote.

The Belgian justice minister, Stefaan De Clerck, stressed that the procedures used in the raids were correct and that the bishops were treated normally, according to the Belga news agency. He bristled at the criticism by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican No. 2, saying his suggestion that the raids were unprecedented even under communism had been excessive, based on false information.

This program aired on June 27, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.