Pope deplores 'sex abuse' raids by Belgian police

Pope Benedict XVI leads the Angelus prayer in St Peter's Square at the Vatican - 27 June The Pope expressed hope justice would take its course in Belgium

Pope Benedict has joined mounting Vatican criticism of raids by Belgian police investigating alleged child sex abuse, calling them "deplorable".

In a message to Belgian bishops, the pope expressed solidarity "in this moment of sadness".

Several buildings were searched in raids targeting a retired archbishop and the graves of two prelates.

Belgium's justice minister has responded to the criticism robustly, saying normal procedures were followed.

Stefaan De Clerck defended the police action, in a series of TV interviews on Sunday, and said the investigation was legitimate.

"The bishops were treated completely normally during the raid on the archdiocese and it is false to say that they received no food or drink," he said.

Start Quote

I hope that justice will follow its course while guaranteeing the rights of individuals and institutions, respecting the rights of victims”

End Quote Pope Benedict

Mr De Clerck said the Vatican's reaction had been excessive as it was based on false information.

Prosecutors said the action concerned alleged "abuse of minors committed by a certain number of Church figures".

Police in Leuven, central Belgium, on Thursday seized nearly 500 files and a computer from the offices of a Church commission investigating allegations of sex abuse.

They also searched the Church's headquarters and the Brussels archdiocese in Mechelen, north of the Belgian capital.

Belgium's bishops, who were holding a meeting at the time of the raids, were kept incommunicado for nine hours while the searches were conducted.

'Unprecedented treatment'

Pope Benedict's criticism of the raids came in a message of support to Brussels Archbishop Andre Joseph Leonard, the head of the Belgian bishops' conference.

Police officer outside the Archdiocese of Mechelen, Belgium on 24 June An inquiry into church sex abuse in Belgium has been running for years

"I want to express, dear brother in the Episcopate, as well as to all the Bishops of Belgium, my closeness and solidarity in this moment of sadness, in which, with certain surprising and deplorable methods, searches were carried out."

"I hope that justice will follow its course while guaranteeing the rights of individuals and institutions, respecting the rights of victims, (and) acknowledging those who undertake to collaborate with it," Pope Benedict said.

On Saturday Vatican officials compared the raids and investigation into allegations of child sex abuse with the treatment of the Church under communist rule.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State, described the detention of priests "serious and unbelievable".

"There are no precedents, not even under the old communist regimes," he said.

The cardinal alleged that the Belgian bishops were left all day without food or drink, although this was later strongly denied by the Belgian justice minister.

The Vatican has summoned the Belgian ambassador to the Holy See to voice its anger at the incident.

The Catholic Church in Belgium has apologised for its silence on abuse cases in the past.

The church was rocked in April when the Bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, resigned and admitted to sexual abuse before and after becoming a bishop.

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