VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI lashed out Sunday at what he called the "deplorable" raids carried out by Belgian police who detained bishops, confiscated computers, opened a crypt and took church documents as part of an investigation into priestly sex abuse.
Benedict made a rare personal entry into the escalating diplomatic dispute with Belgium, issuing a message of solidarity to the head of the Belgian bishops' conference and other bishops who were detained in the June 24 raid.
He said justice must take its course, but also asserted the right of the Catholic Church to investigate clerical abuse alongside civil law enforcement authorities.
It was first time the pope himself had commented on the 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.
Belgium's justice minister defended the searches on Sunday, saying the bishops were treated normally and that the search warrant was fully legitimate.
In the raids, police searched the home and former office of former Archbishop Godfried Danneels, taking documents and his personal computer, just 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.
In addition, police opened at least one tomb of a prelate – a violation that has particularly galled the Vatican.
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 set to discuss clerical abuse.
Belgium's Catholic Church has been stunned following the resignation in April of its longest-serving bishop, Roger Vangheluwe, who stepped down after admitting to having sexually abused a young boy during the time Danneels was archbishop.
The revelation came as hundreds of cases of abuse were being reported across Europe, Latin America and elsewhere, exposing cover-ups by bishops and evidence of long-standing Vatican inaction to stop it.
In his message Sunday, Benedict 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.