Belgium urges Vatican to stay out of child sex abuse investigations

Belgium has defended itself after Pope Benedict XVI blasted a series of raids by investigators and the detention of senior clerics in a child sex abuse investigation as "deplorable".

In a worsening of the argument provoked by last Thursday's raids, the country's Foreign Minister, Steven Vanackere, reminded Rome of the principle of separation of church and state yesterday, pointing out that the church should not try to impede the work of the judiciary. Speaking to The Independent, he urged the Vatican to "react with balance" after the extraordinary and rare intervention by the Pope on Sunday. A day earlier, a spokesman for the Holy See had accused Belgian investigators of using "communist" tactics.

Mr Vanackere said he was confident that the issue could be prevented from spiralling into a diplomatic row with the Vatican but stressed that "it's good to [keep in mind] very important principles of the state of law. [There are] very elementary principles of having a separation of powers and accepting that the judiciary has to do its work".

Belgian police raided a bishop's meeting in the city of Mechelen last Thursday amid claims of child abuse. Investigators confiscated mobile phones, computers and also seized files from the home of Godfried Danneels, Belgium's former cardinal, as part of their search for documents and correspondence between Catholic authorities and alleged victims.

The Brussels prosecutor's office said the raid followed a string of accusations "denouncing abuse of minors committed by a certain number of Church figures". Belgium's Catholic Church was thrown into turmoil in April by a string of revelations which saw Roger Vangheluwe, 73, its longest-serving bishop, resign after admitting to sexually abusing a boy for years.

The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, accused investigators of holding the clerics for nine hours "without food and water" in methods "unprecedented even in Communist regimes of old".

Mr Vanackere said he understood the concerns. "But if it emerges that disproportionate measures were used, then it's a problem for the Belgian judiciary not for the Vatican."

His comments came just hours after the mass resignation of the Catholic Church-backed Commission set up to probe hundreds of reported cases of abuses. Its chief, Peter Andriaenssens, stood down claiming a breach of confidentiality. "We are pulling out. The debate must now take place between victims, political leaders, the judiciary, the church and public opinion," said Mr Andriaenssens. Belgium's justice minister, Stefaan De Clerck, said urgent talks would be held.