Belgian Church Offices Raided in Abuse Inquiry

The Belgian authorities searched the offices of bishops in three cities on Monday, removing documents as part of an investigation into child sexual abuse that has plunged the country’s Roman Catholic church into crisis.

A spokeswoman for the Federal Prosecution Service, Lieve Pellens, said that the investigation, known as Operation Chalice, was an important phase in which officials were trying to establish whether there were grounds to prosecute priests on charges of negligence and failing to aid abuse victims.

“We have had around 200 statements from victims,” she said, “and based on these, and 87 civil claims, we wanted to look at the individual personal records of priests made by their superiors to see if, in these records that were kept by archbishops or bishops, there is anything useful.”

Of the 20 to 25 files removed, Ms. Pellens said, most were of old cases dating from the 1960s or 1970s, she said.

Last week, the church said that priests who had abused children could be required to pay damages if they were able to do so.

The issue of child sexual abuse has undermined the church’s credibility in many Western nations, as revelations piled up for months of cover-ups by bishops of priests’ misconduct. Belgium found itself in turmoil as hundreds of people came forward to offer harrowing accounts of abuse over several decades. The former bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, shocked the nation when he admitted that he had abused two nephews.

At the time of the crypt drilling, Pope Benedict XVI had called the action “deplorable.” A Belgian court later ruled that excessive force had been used, but the inquiry was allowed to continue on the condition that legal constraints were observed. The lawyer representing the church in the case, Fernand Keuleneer, said of Monday’s searches that had investigators “called the diocese, there would have been no problem.”

“These files would have been sent to them,” he said

Several of the documents related to priests who were dead, and Mr. Keuleneer said he was unhappy that files on at least one case not specifically requested had been removed.

The material seized might also have included documentation from victims who had asked not to have their testimony passed on the judicial authorities, he said.

The Belgian church is also leading an investigation into the allegations.

Nevertheless this was a more targeted search than the previous raid at Mechelen, Mr. Keuleneer said. “In June 2010, they just didn’t have a clue — it was a fishing expedition,” he said.

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