BRUSSELS, Belgium – Police raids on bishops’ offices in several Belgian cities this week have again placed the spotlight on the role of the country’s Roman Catholic hierarchy in protecting alleged pedophile priests.
All of Belgium’s eight Catholic dioceses have been raided since Monday as part of “Operation Chalice,” launched by police to investigate reports of widespread child abuse in the Church which have come to light since 2010 when a top Belgian bishop confessed to molesting his two young nephews.
Church officials said police removed a number of dossiers concerning priests who had been accused of abusing children. News reports say the police are investigating several individual priests and claims they were protected by the Church.
The Belgian church has been under pressure since the revelations that the former Bishop of Bruges, Roger Vanhegheluwe, had abused family members as young as five. One victim, then in his 40s, claimed Church leaders had pressured him not to go public with his allegations.
In the two years since the allegations, more than 500 witnesses have come forward with often harrowing testimony of abuse by priests going back decades. Victims have complained that despite the revelations, little action has been taken against the perpetrators.
Vanhegheluwe, 75, was given sanctuary in a monastery in southern Belgium, after he was forced to step down as bishop. He later lived in a religious community in France. Prosecutors have said that the statute of limitations has run out on his crimes -- ruling out any criminal action he might have faced. That could change if new allegations that he protected other pedophile priests more recently are proved.
Officials said the church authorities where cooperating with the police in the latest raids. However, an article on the Church’s web portal questioned the timing of the operation.
“The question remains as to why these searches are taking place now,” wrote the site’s editorial director Jean-Jacques Durre. “The coincidence of this timing could seem troubling.”
Durre referred to an announcement by the Church last week that pedophile priests may be forced to pay victims compensation, even if the statue of limitations means they are no longer liable for prosecution. In December, a Belgian parliamentary commission said victims could apply for up to 25,000 Euros in compensation.