The Vatican has clearly stated that when investigating cases of sex abuse, “civil law concerning the reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed.” History shows, however, that such cooperation is not always the norm. For more than a thousand years in Europe, church and state were rarely separate. Still today, some Catholic bishops seem to have chosen to hold civil law in contempt, infuriating law-enforcement authorities. It’s a delicate balance, and just recently, more than any time in recent memory, it wobbled.
Investigating alleged sex abuse, Belgian authorities seized documents and computers from local church offices, cracked open the tombs of two archbishops, and detained several living bishops. Irate, the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said the move was unprecedented and “unbelievable.” The once Catholic country has become overwhelmingly secular in just a generation, and Oxford professor Diarmaid MacCulloch tells NEWSWEEK that the new archbishop of Belgium is “openly held in contempt by the Belgian government.” Meanwhile, many Western countries have been upping the pressure—challenging the Holy See’s “sovereign immunity” claims in U.S. courts, for example. The Vatican may have a hard time believing it, but as the investigations continue, privilege may be harder to find.