Pope Benedict XVI criticised on Sunday the “regrettable methods” of the 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.” 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. Mr. 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 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.

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