BRUSSELS — Belgium insisted Monday in a dispute with the Vatican over credibility that Belgian law enforcement authorities – not the potentially biased Catholic Church – will investigate sexual abuse cases involving clergy.
A panel created by Belgian bishops 12 years ago to look into abuse cases disbanded on Monday, saying last week's seizure of its 500 case files rendered its existence pointless. Its chief, Peter Adriaenssens, accused authorities of betraying the trust of hundreds of victims and using his group to tap into information and testimony from abuse victims.
"We were bait," said Adriaenssens, a child psychiatrist. He urged Belgian authorities to clarify to abuse victims – many of whom talked after being promised anonymity – "what is going to happen" to the allegations they made to his church-appointed commission.
Belgium's government doesn't appear to be concerned about having pushed the panel to the sidelines, despite an outburst from the Vatican that Thursday's police raid was an unprecedented intrusion into church affairs.
"I respect Peter Adriaenssens, but his commission was created by the Church," Glenn Audenaert, head of Belgium's judiciary police, said after last week's police raids. "That commission cannot start a prosecution. Only the justice department can."
In Belgium, it has been doing that with unusual force.
On Thursday, scores of police officers seized documents, computers, DVDs and CDs at the Belgian archbishop's residence in Mechlin, north of Brussels, and detained a dozen Belgian bishops who were meeting there. Also detained for nine hours and told to surrender his cell phone was the Vatican's envoy to Belgium.
Using power tools, police also opened up a prelate's crypt in Mechlin's St. Rombout Cathedral looking for documents. Simultaneously, police carted off 500 sexual abuse case files against Belgian clergy from the office of Adriaenssens' panel in Leuven, just east of Brussels.
As the Adriaenssens' commission stepped down, it said it was now up to Belgian bishops "to care for victims and follow-up their complaints" of sexual abuse.
Rik Torfs, a canon law expert, says the Catholic Church has a poor record of doing that.
"It has failed badly in its treatment of many of these cases," he said. "The church always found their fate less important than its own prestige. In that sense, today's papal protests are unimpressive."
The commission Adriaenssens led was founded in 1998 to investigate sexual abuse by clergy. For long a do-nothing group with fast changing leaders, its case load in its first 10 years of existence never exceeded 30.
What accelerated matters was the April 24 resignation of Belgium's longest-serving bishop, Roger Vangheluwe. He stepped down after admitting sexually abusing a young boy both when he was a priest and archbishop casting a vast cloud over former Archbishop Godfried Danneels who retired last January.
The resignation came after reports of hundreds of abuse cases worldwide exposing cover-ups by bishops and evidence of long-standing Vatican inaction to stop it.
Since Adriaenssens took charge of the abuse investigation panel in April, its case load rose to 475 as hundreds of men – now in their 60s and 70s – have come forward.
Only 100 agreed that their cases could be relayed to justice officials. Adriaenssens said his panel had planned to issue a report to the Belgian bishops in October.