VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI criticised Sunday the "regrettable methods" of Belgian police who raided a bishops' meeting as part of a paedophilia probe, as Brussels accused the Vatican of over-reacting.
The pontiff's criticism of the search came in a message of support to Brussels-Malines Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard, the head of the Belgian bishops' conference.
"I want to express ... my closeness and solidarity in this moment of sadness, in which, with certain surprising and regrettable methods, searches were carried out including in the Malines cathedral and in the premises where the Belgian episcopate was meeting in plenary session".
The raids on Thursday came amid fresh claims of child abuse by members of the clergy.
Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone on Saturday said the detention of a number of bishops during the raid was "serious and unbelievable", comparing it to the practices of communist regimes.
The Vatican has also expressed anger over the confiscation of phones, computers, the archdiocese's accounting system and other items during the raids.
But Belgium's Justice Minister Stefaan De Clerck defended the police action, putting the government's side of the story in a series of television interviews on Sunday.
"The bishops were treated completely normally during the raid on the archdiocese and it is not false to say that they received no food or drink," he said, referring to media reports.
De Clerck said the Vatican's reaction had been excessive as it was based on false information, dismissing the question of the police raids becoming a diplomatic incident.
However Fernand Keuleneer, the lawyer for the Mechelen-Brussels archdiocese where the raids occurred, said "there is of course a diplomatic aspect to this whole matter and I think perhaps the (instructing) judge did not really sufficiently consider the diplomatic aspects."
Belgian bishops meeting with a Vatican envoy were detained and their phones, computers and other materials confiscated leaving it impossible, according to Keuleneer, for the archdiocese to function properly.
Keuleneer said Saturday the Church would consider legal action if it became clear the police raids were a mere "fishing expedition" for evidence and the action was disproportionate.
Belgian officials have been at pains to explain that the separation of powers in Belgium would not allow politicians to meddle in such judicial action.
The procedure is clearly laid out in the judicial code, the Belgian minister said, underlining the independence of the instructing judge.
"During this meeting, amongst other things, aspects linked to the abuse of minors by members of the clergy were to have been discussed," said the pope in his letter, published by the Vatican on Sunday.
"I have myself repeated numerous times that these serious facts must be dealt with by civil law and by canon law, in reciprocal respect of the specificity and autonomy of each.
Father Eric De Beukelaer, spokesman for the archdiocese, said something that the Belgian church particularly regretted was the searching of the premises of a committee probing priest paedophilia allegations.
The Church was also upset by the "violation" of cardinals' tombs in the Mechelen cathedral during which, according to a church spokesman, holes were drilled and cameras lowered into their graves.
The Brussels prosecutor has said the raid followed a string of accusations "denouncing abuse of minors committed by a certain number of Church figures."
The authorities also seized computer files at the home of Belgium's top cardinal for the last 20 years, Leonard's predecessor Godfried Danneels.
The Belgian Church was rocked in April when its longest-serving bishop, 73-year-old Roger Vangheluwe, resigned from his Bruges post after admitting sexually abusing a boy for years.
According to retired priest Dirk Deville, hundreds of cases of sexual abuse had been signalled to Danneels going back to the 1990s, but himself recently denied being involved in any cover-up.
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