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Police raid on the Belgian hierarchy: first battle of a long war?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jun 29, 2010

Were you shocked by the police raid on the headquarters of the Brussels archdiocese? If so, brace yourself to be shocked again. This sort of thing is likely to happen again.

Last week’s stunning police action in Belgium was the product of two major trends: rising hostility toward the Catholic faith and sagging credibility among the Catholic bishops. The unhappy track record of the Belgian hierarchy gave public officials reason to question whether the bishops would handle abuse complaints honestly. A general loss of respect for the Catholic faith, in one of Europe’s most thoroughly secularized societies, gave police confidence that they could weather the inevitable storm of complaints from Church leaders.

The police raid was a clear and highly public statement that law-enforcement officials did not trust the bishops, nor did they trust the independent commission set up by the bishops to investigate abuse complaints. The search team arrived without warning and carted away thousands of documents. The bishops themselves were detained, their cell phones temporarily confiscated. And as if it were not enough to treat the Catholic hierarchy as suspect, the police took the astonishing step of drilling into the tombs of two former archbishops, buried in the cathedral crypt.

(Incidentally, the official explanation for the violation of those tombs—that police were searching for buried documents—sounds highly implausible. Why would anyone attempt to hide a document in a tomb? More likely the police were looking for some other sort of material evidence, such as DNA samples.)

Shocking? Yes, it is. Yet this raid was not altogether unpredictable. The Catholic Church has become the favorite whipping boy of the secular left; contempt for the faith is acceptable, even fashionable. Editorial writers have pounced on the sex-abuse scandal as a way to discredit the Catholic hierarchy, hoping to silence the voice of the Church on contentious moral issues.

Meanwhile, it must be said, many Church leaders—certainly including the past leadership of the Belgian Catholic hierarchy—have aggravated the problem by their unwillingness to confront the sex-abuse issue honestly. The bishops who have protected abusive priests have been giving law-enforcement officials an opening. In societies where anti-Catholicism is rife, politicians will gladly seize such opportunities.

So it was in Belgium. So it could be in Austria, or Germany, or Ireland, or France. So it could be in the US, where prosecutors have already opened criminal cases against the leaders of several Catholic dioceses, and contemplated charges in several others. If an ambitious prosecutor raided the chancery of your diocese, would the local newspaper condemn the incursion or applaud it? Would public opinion favor the bishop or the police? If those questions are troubling, the answers may be more so.

The Vatican has lodged a formal protest against the Belgian police action, and rightly so. But if current trends continue the Holy See may be forced to take more forceful action against governments that encroach on the freedoms of the Church. Papal nuncios may be withdrawn, ambassadors to the Vatican sent home, regimes denounced in public, as the Church mobilizes in the political world to secure her rights.

At the same time, the Vatican must also forthrightly acknowledge that some bishops have betrayed their trust, and thereby endangered the rights of the Church. If the government does have a legitimate case for criminal prosecution of a prelate, the Vatican should demand a fair trial for the accused bishop, but nothing more. The Vatican cannot be placed in the position of defending convicted criminals, lest the public believe—as all too many people are already inclined to believe—that the entire Catholic hierarchy is engaged in the cover-up.

A bishop who violates the law is a criminal, deserving of appropriate punishment. If his illegal actions have brought opprobrium upon the Church, then he is a traitor to the faith as well. In order to defend the legitimate rights of the Church, the Vatican must distance itself from bishops who claim illegitimate privileges. The Holy See must make it clear to the world that bishops who engage in misconduct—in Belgium or anywhere else—cannot expect protection from Rome.  

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Show 1 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Joehickey - Jun. 30, 2010 3:52 PM ET USA

    I hate to see any government action like this take place against the Church, but it has brought this upon itself. No one can deny that certain members of the Faith have committed grave sins against its most precious members,the children. It should not be denied that certain bishops, who are charged with leading the flock, failed to protect the flock and/or assited in concealing the sins. It is time to be true disciples of Jesus and acknowledge the sins, forgive the sinnners, root out the evil.

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