It is not often that the Pope comments directly on the unfolding of the sexual abuse crisis, but the actions of Belgian authorities last week stung Benedict into denouncing them on Sunday as “surprising and deplorable”.

His words, conveyed in a message to Belgium’s senior Catholic cleric, Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard, followed a series of police raids that Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Bertone called “unbelievable” — except under a communist regime.

Belgian police last Thursday detained nine serving Catholic bishops as they met, seized their mobile phones and released them only after nine hours. The media had been tipped off, as they arrived half an hour before the police.

At the same time the police seized documents and a computer from the home of retired archbishop Godfried Daneels, and documents from an independent panel investigating 500 cases of suspected abuse by priests.

Most bizarre of all, and suggestive of a briefing by Dan Brown, they drilled holes in the tombs of two cardinals at Mechelen Cathedral north of Brussels in order to send down cameras, apparently to search for secret documents, managing to break away part of one tomb.

Phones, computers, the accounting system and other items of the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels were taken and had not been returned by Sunday.

Why? The prosector’s office said police were looking for “important documents” in relation to their investigation into the abuse of children by church figures. But the whole exercise looks more like a fishing expedition and, as such, not a legitimate purpose for a search. A lawyer for the archdiocese says the Church may sue the state if that is the case.

The fact is that the Church is already co-operating with the authorities. Also, in April former bishop Roger Vangheluwe resigned after admitting sexually abusing a boy. In May, the bishops came together to publicly beg forgiveness from victims for the actions of abusive priests and their silence down the years. And an independent committee is investigating all allegations.

“This is putting the work of the committee and its confidentiality at risk,” said church spokesman Fr Eric De Beukelaer. Some people have come forward only in strictest confidence because they did not want to deal with the police.

In his reaction on Sunday Pope Benedict reaffirmed the roles of both civil and church law, “respecting their reciprocal specificity and autonomy”.

Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, claimed the police investigation went “beyond the legitimate requirements of justice” and was the sign of a secular government’s “desire to attack the church in its entirety”. Which sounds about right.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet