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A potentially difficult situation that is bound to raise more than a few eyebrows has developed in the Diocese of Bruges, as Bishop Jozef De Kesel has assigned a priest, who has been found guilty of at least one case of molesting a minor in the past, to the parish federation in Middelkerke, halfway between Ostend and Nieuwpoort on the Belgian coast.
Father Tom Flamez appeared in court in 2008 and 2009, where he was found guilty of sexual molestation of teenage boy. In January of 2009, the court, for reasons of its own, decided to waive any punishment, as Bishop De Kesel explains in a statement released today:
“For a period of five years, Tom Flamez was permanently monitored by the house of justice in Courtrai. Even during this time the probation commission had no objections to an eventual appointment as parish priest. Unlike the reporting of some media he never violated the probationary conditions. In January of 2014 the commission of the court of Courtrai decided that the trial period could be ended. Until this day Tom Flamez is sustainably and professionally supervised.”
In the meanwhile I have also presented this file to a higher ecclesial authority. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith agreed with an eventual appointment, starting on 15 January 2014. Tom Flamez has been working on occasion in the parish of Middelkerke since September of 2011. His work there was positively evaluated. All this led me to decide, after consulting the diocesan council, to appoint Tom Flamez as parish priest in the federation of Middelkerke. Convinced that everyone who has shown to be able deserves a second chance, I hope that Tom Flamez will be given the opportunity to properly fulfill the duties entrusted to him.”
This statement is a response to ongoing media speculations that Fr. Flamez did violate the conditions of his probation, something which the bishop denies. Additionally, many also link him to the disgraced former bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, who resigned in 2010 after admitting being guilty of years of sexual abuse. This subject, of the sexual abuse or violation of minors, is extremely sensitive and needs to be handled very carefully. In the first place for the sake of the victims, but also for all others involved with the perpetrator in his new duties.
Of course, Bishop De Kesel is correct that everyone deserves a second chance when he or she is able to take it. And our entire legal system is founded on the principle that once a person has been punished for a crime, he can’t be punished again for that same crime. He starts over with a clean slate, so to speak. But as Fr. Flamez has not been punished (for reasons we don’t know – perhaps the case was settled in some form outside court), many may feel that this principle does not apply to him.
Bishop De Kesel, backed by not only his own diocesan council, but also by the court and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith, which has authority in all abuse cases, has decided that there is no reason for Fr. Flamez not to be the priest in a parish, working with people of all ages, including children and youth. And in this he also seems to be supported by the church in Middelkerke, where Fr. Flamez has been a familiar face for these past three years.
Let’s hope his trust is justified, and that this is an example of how people who once made grave mistakes can leave those behind them.
Yesterday it turned out that the careful process followed by the bishop – consulting both his diocesan council and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before appointing Fr. Flamez – was not as careful as it seemed. He forgot one all-important group: the victims of sexual abuse by clergy. And it was Fr. Flamez himself who made the best call possible in not accepting the appointment as parish priest of Middelkerke. A statement published yesterday says that the bishop realises that the appointment hurt the victims of sexual abuse, and that that was never his intention. Which begs the question: why did he not realise this beforehand?
The Belgian bishops use certain guidelines when dealing with clergy who have been found guilty of sexual abuse of minors. One of these is that they can never be allowed to work with children and young people again. The position of parish priest does entail working with people of all ages, including youth and children.
We can’t know what the exact motivation was for Fr. Flamez’ decision not to accept the appointment. Was it the questions in the media which made his position untenable, or perhaps a realisation that this was not the sort of duty he could take up considering his past mistakes? Yesterday’s statement only mentions “given circumstances”, which is as vague as it gets.
All in all, this whole situation, despite the apparent care expressed in certain areas, gives the impression of carelessness. The victims, be they of the priest in question or of other clergy, can not be ignored. The Church is under scrutiny in this area, and may well serve as an example to other institutions. But not when things like this happen.
For the first time, a civil court has ordered a practical change in how the Church handles the abuse crisis in the Netherlands. The deadline for reporting past abuses by perpetrators who are either deceased or which happened too long ago to be pursued by a court of law, originally set for 1 July 2014, needs to be extended to at least the first of May of 2015. This, the Judge decided, better reflects the deadlines used in neighbouring countries and is a reflection of the sometimes decades-long silence kept by the victims for reasons of fear, shame or the denial of Church authorities. The court stated that setting a deadline is, in itself, justified, but in this case the Church did not adequately involve the interests of all parties involved. The Bishops’ Conference and the Conference of Dutch Religious should have realised better that the reporting abuse was often a very big and difficult step to take for the victims. The court felt that this was not properly respected in setting the original deadline.
The decision is the result of proceedings started by five women and the Vrouwenplatform Kerkelijk Kindermisbruik (Women’s platform of child abuse in the Church) who felt that the Church did not offer enough time for victims of physical abuse, especially women, to report their cases. The court agreed with this, stating that the period of 2 year and 8 months that cases could be reported was too short. Three years and six months is a reasonable period, the judge decided.
The bishops and religious abide with the decision of the court and will look into ways of implementing it.
The Holy See’s new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors had its first meeting from 1 to 3 May. They focussed primarily at making recommendation to Pope Francis about how the Commission should function. On behalf of the Commission, members Marie Collins, Fr. Hans Zollner and Cardinal Seán O’Malley made the following press statement. This is important to get an idea of how the Church will combat sexual abuse by clergy and other Church workers in the future [emphases in bold mine]:
“As we begin our service together, we wish to express our heartfelt solidarity with all victims/survivors of sexual abuse as children and vulnerable adults and to share that, from the very beginning of our work, we have adopted the principle that the best interests of a child or vulnerable adult are primary when any decision is made.
During our meetings, each of us have been able to share our thoughts, experiences, and our aspirations for this Pontifical Commission. Responding to our Holy Father’s requests, these discussions focused on the Commission’s nature and purpose and on expanding the membership to include people from other geographical areas and other areas of expertise. Our conversations included many proposals for ways in which the Commission might collaborate with experts from different areas related to safeguarding children and vulnerable adults. We also met with some people from the Roman Curia regarding areas for future cooperation, including representatives from the Secretariat of State, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for the Clergy, the Vatican Press Office, and the Vatican Gendarmerie.
As an advisory commission to the Holy Father, the fruit of our work will be communicated to Pope Francis. In time, we will propose initiatives to encourage local responsibility around the world and the mutual sharing of “best practices” for the protection of all minors, including programs for training, education, formation, and responses to abuse. We have also shared with Pope Francis how important certain areas are to us in our future work. We see ensuring accountability in the Church as especially important, including developing means for effective and transparent protocols and processes.
We will propose Statutes to the Holy Father to express more precisely the Commission’s nature, structure, activity, and the goals. It is clear, for example, that the Commission will not deal with individual cases of abuse, but we can make recommendations regarding policies for assuring accountability and best practice. In the Statutes, we plan to make specific proposals regarding the importance of emphasizing ways for raising the awareness of all people regarding the tragic consequences of sexual abuse and of the devastating consequences of not listening, not reporting suspicion of abuse, and failing to support victims/survivors and their families.
As the Catholic people make our parishes, schools, and institutions safe for all children, we join with people of good will in our endeavour to ensure that children and vulnerable adults are protected from abuse. We request the prayers of all who wish to support the work of the Commission.”
There are media who make much of the fact that the Church does not automatically and immediately come forward about abuse cases, especially when a bishop is involved, but only when asked about it. It is seen as an attempt of hiding the facts, something that the Church has indeed been guilty of in decades past. This conclusion is understandable, but not accurate, however. From the start of the abuse crisis, the issue of confidentiality has played an important part in the question of how to deal with accusations, victims and perpetrators. On the one hand, it was out of the question that proven abuse be hidden or even denied. On the other, there was the obligation that both victim and accused be protected from unwanted attention. Until proven guilty, the accused is, obviously, considered innocent. The victim often deals with intensely personal and very emotional and painful experiences that he or she often only wants to share with the world when they deem it necessary or helpful, if at all.
The complaints commission established by the Church to collect and resolve all complaints of sexual abuse explains that confidentiality is import for three reasons:
It lowers the threshold
Victims seek recognition and compensation, but to tell their story after an often long period of silence is very difficult and confrontational. Confidentiality makes this easier. Likewise, it allows perpetrators to sooner admit their guilt and persons in authority to recognise the abuse.
Plausibility comes first
The complaints procedure deals with recognition and compensation for the victim. Public indictment or punishment for the victim are beyond its scope. The accusation must be plausible and certain facts need to be correct, mostly about the accused, the place where the abuse took place and the year. This plausibility is considered enough to recognise the victims and the abuse.
The accused are generally deceased
Most accused parties can not defend themselves. That is why their rights, nor the feelings of fellow members of religious orders, fellow priests and family members, can not be ignored.
To ensure this confidentiality, certain measures are taken:
Procedures take place out of the public eye
This allows maximum opportunities for both parties to come to a solution.
All advice is published anonymously
No names are mentioned on the website of the Meldpunt Seksueel Misbruik RKK. This allows openness about the cases dealt with, the criteria used and the reasoning for allowing financial compensation. The abuse is made completely public, but the identity of all parties involved is protected.
All employees of and persons involved with the commission are bound to secrecy
It is clear that not everyone agrees with this. Many would welcome full openness with names, dates and locations. However, in a society that protects the rights of individuals, especially those who can not defend themselves, this is not an option. The victims, whose needs always come first in these procedures, may at some point reveal more details. But that is theirs to decide, and many will not want to. We should never demand they tell all about what happened to them, unless they decide to do so. And if they don’t, we must respect that choice.
And as for the perpetrators: if they are dead, there is not much more that can be done. A dead man can’t be put on trial. If he still lives, but his crimes are subject to the statures of limitations, the law is powerless. The Church should not be, however, and once a priest, bishop or other worker in the Church is proven guilty, there must be a form of punishment. However, no punishment will please everyone…
If the perpetrator lives and the crime took place recently enough, the police must be informed and this person must be tried. This is something the Church does now, but the fact remains that these cases are a small minority. Most abuse took place decades ago, and many perpetrators are no longer alive.
I guess we could have waited for it. But to find the likely truth is nonetheless painful. Following the plausibility of accusations of sexual abuse by the late Bishop Joannes Gijsen, another deceased Dutch bishop has accusations against him determined to be plausible.
Bishop Jan Niënhaus, who died in 2000, is deemed to likely be guilty of four cases of sexual abuse which took place before he was appointed as auxiliary bishop of Utrecht in 1982. Cardinal Wim Eijk, the current archbishop, followed the advice of the complaints commission to declare the accusations plausible. The archdiocese issued the following statement:
“Cardinal Eijk, archbishop of Utrecht, took notice of four advisory statements from the complaints commission for sexual abuse in the Catholic Church to declare plausible these complaints regarding sexual abuse by Msgr. Niënhaus (1929-2000), auxiliary bishop emeritus of the Archdiocese of Utrecht.
The complaints commission determined that it is likely that Msgr. Niënhaus was guilty of sexual abuse in these cases, which took place in the period before he became auxiliary bishop. Cardinal Eijk adopted the advice of the complaints commission regarding the plausibility of these complaints. Cardinal Eijk is sad that this abuse took place and hopes that their determination of plausibility may help in the process of healing for the victims.”
Adding insult to injury for the victims, once he was appointment as bishop, Msgr. Niënhaus held the portfolios for education & catechesis, as well as youth (!), in addition to others. The bishop retired for health reasons in 1999 and died the next year at the age of 71.
It makes me wonder… who’s next? There are complaints against at least one more late bishop, as far as I understand… What on earth was in the water in that time for these men to do what they did? I simply can’t get my head around it…
Over the past weekend, the news of the “plausible” abuse by Bishop Gijsen has obviously dominated Catholic news in the Netherlands. For some it was reason for renewed attacks against the Catholic Church, but what struck me most were the thought and feelings of those who had known Bishop Gijsen, who had entered seminary when he was bishop, who have him to thank for setting the first step towards finding their vocation. Those that I read all expressed feelings of confusion, of feeling lost. And that is what abuse, being a complete destruction of the bonds of trust and responsibility, does. It leaves victims stranded, alone, trying to build themselves up again and, too often, in the face of disbelief and accusations of lying.
Below, find my translation of the homily that Bishop Franz Wiertz gave on Monday, in a Mass of penance and reconciliation at Maastricht’s Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady.
“It is Holy Week. For Christians this is a week during which they not only follow Christ in His suffering, but especially look at themselves in this light and question themselves about the why of this death of the cross. The first confessions of faith, which we find in the Acts of the Apostles and also in the First Letter to the Corinthians, indicate the why of the cross very clearly: “Died for our sins”. In order to expiate our sins the Lord died on the cross. This makes us fall silent and we prefer not to hear these words. We don’t like being told that we are people who are not spotless and thus guilty.
Perhaps we think it is a bit strange that the new Pope, when he was asked, “Who are you, Jorge Bergoglio? What do you say about yourself?”, answered, “I am a simply sinful human being.” That means that the Pope does not want to present himself smugly as a perfect person, but as a human being in whose life guilt and sin are also a reality. We struggle with this fact. It throws us back on ourselves.
It is not without reason that guilt and sin are topics which are addressed in many ways in modern literature. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, devotes his play “The Flies” to the freedom of man and the responsibility that comes with it. But also to the feelings of guilt which are the result of choices made. The protagonist can’t live with these feelings of guilt. He tries to suppress them. Every attempt to chase them away is a stroke in the air. The flies return.
You can only come to terms with feelings of guilt by acknowledging them. Not by suppressing them. And certainly not by explaining away what happened. He who acknowledges guilt, will certainly also ask himself, “Who did I hurt? Who is the victim of the evil I have done? How can I repair what happened?”
Handling guilt is not easy for a person. It is more than a stain on one’s reputation. Guilt questions one’s own integrity. In response one attacks the evil of other with strong condemnations. Like David did when the Prophet Nathan told him the story of the rich man who prepared the poor man’s lamb for dinner. David suppressed how he had abused his own power and took the wife of Uriah for his own. How he then tried to hide his tracks by having Uriah die in battle.
Difficulty to accept our own guilt which is the consequence of the acts of her members, and taking responsibility for it, is also difficult for our own Church. Even this week we in the Netherlands and in our diocese were painfully confronted with the fact that a bishop, priests and religious abused their power and undermined their mission. They caused scandal, by actions that do not stand up to daylight: abuse of children and young people. There is nothing worse.
For decades it was denied or suppressed. Now that the true extent has become known, the shame is great. Parents entrusted their children to people of the Church, thinking that there was no safer place than that. Children entrusted themselves to people of the Church and they were abused. Their stories were often not believed.
Although this is also a social phenomenon, that can never be an excuse for people of the Church. Although it happened half a century ago, we experience it as an original sin which is almost impossible to atone for. But we must carry it with us. The Church also does not want to be reminded of the stains in her own reputation, and she frequently made the mistake of David by condemning the mistakes of people with great harshness and without mercy. Why did the Church respond like that? Is it shame? Is it fear of loss of prestige? Loss of face? Did they want to protect the institution more than the hurting victims?
It hurts to be confronted with these sinister and dark sides of the Church. We want to acknowledge that Church authorities and Church members have caused grave scandal and that they have been guilty of grievous acts. In that context the words “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” have perhaps been used too quickly. Since the extent of the abuse became known these concepts were for the victims like a red cloth for a bull. It angered them, because it was misguidedly used to avoid acknowledgement of the facts and to avoid to take responsibility.
This misguided use of the word “forgiveness” should never have happened, because it is a special word and it is a special phenomenon when forgiveness and reconciliation happens between people. But it should always be remembered that forgiveness and reconciliation confer no rights. They can only be received as an undeserved gift.
It always presumes a completely honest acknowledgement of one’s own guilt, without fleeing for the responsibility for what was done in the lives of people. Family members and partners of the victims must certainly not be forgotten in that. Forgiveness is only possible where it is preceded by the acknowledgment of guilt. Acknowledging guilt before the victim and for us a Church also acknowledgement of guilt before God. The forgiveness has a chance and there can be a future again. People can set off on the journey together again. Then they can find each other again as people and appreciate each other for what we can give each other.
May the time come that victims can give their trust to the Church and to people of the Church and forgive them for what was done to them. The Church must wait for that and in the meantime must continuously prove herself to be worthy of it. For now, we work hard together on a “road to reconciliation”. Amen.”
Photo credit: ANP
“I will take the children of Israel from among the nations
to which they have come,
and gather them from all sides to bring them back to their land.
I will make them one nation upon the land,
in the mountains of Israel,
and there shall be one prince for them all.
Never again shall they be two nations,
and never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms.”
Ezekiel 37: 21-22
With the news yesterday (both the Pope’s apology and the news about Bishop Gijsen) opinions pop up. Everyone has something to say about what it all means, and how other people are wrong about it. It gets depressing sometimes.
The Word of God often offers inspiration, a new view on things, but also comfort. So today, as I looked for some of that comfort on the readings of today. The first two verses of the first reading, from the Book of Ezekiel, are a potent reminder that in God no division can last. God brings His people back to their own land, to Himself. He unites them again.
If only we would hear Him.
It’s hardly inconceivable anymore, but somehow it is still hard to believe accusations of sexual abuse against a generally well-respected bishop. And when the bishop denies and seems to be supported in that denial by the competent authorities, that is a relief. Just so in this case, but there’s preciously little room for such denial anymore.
A week after the death of Bishop Joannes Gijsen, formerly of Roermond, the institute charged with deciding if an accusation is founded or unfounded reopened the case against him. The bishops was accused of multiple cases of sexual abuse in the time late 1950s and early 1960s, when the future bishop was a young priest. The claims of two victims have now been deemed plausible, it was revealed today. In the first case there are accusations of forced oral sex and attempted or actual rape; while the second revolves around a single instance of improper touching. The complaints commission have decided that the cases of touching are plausible, whereas the (attempted) rape and oral sex can not be proven (which is not to say they didn’t take place, the commission stressed).
Instrumental in this decision was the appearance of a second complaint and the defence of the bishop, which was deemed highly implausible. In his defence, Bishop Gijsen claimed not to know the victim, while he was known to have regularly visited the victim and his family and to have received letters from the victim’s father.
As Bishop Gijsen is no longer alive, there is little that can be done, even if his crimes were not subject to the statute of limitations. Bishop Frans Wiertz, who succeeded Bishop Gijsen in 1993, apologised to the victims and expressed his regret and sorrow. When the complaints were first expressed, Bishop Wiertz immediately notified the relevant authorities and advised the victims to do the same. But even when having done what is possible this late, a feeling of powerlessness remains.
Sexual abuse, however long ago, does not simply go away. It lasts for the victims, and no less for all who have known them or the perpetrator. And when the latter is a priest or bishop, a moral example (even in hindsight), who turns out to have lied about what he did, that is all the worse.
“I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil which some priests, quite a few in number, obviously not compared to the number of all the priests, to personally ask for forgiveness for the damage they have done for having sexually abused children. The Church is aware of this damage, it is personal, moral damage carried out by men of the Church, and we will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem, and the sanctions that must be imposed. On the contrary, we have to be even stronger. Because you cannot interfere with children…”
Pope Francis, 11 April 2014
Words that are more than just an apology, but an example to so many institutions, agencies and government the world over, where child abuse still occurs and in shockingly large numbers, but where perpetrators generally get away with it…
Compared with another passage the Pope spoke today, in a meeting with italy’s Pro-Life Movement, we can see that the above apology, and the efforts of the Holy See and the Church to combat sexual abuse of minors, is a logical consequence of what the Church teaches about the dignity of all human life.
“The strongest opposition to any direct attack on life must therefore be reiterated, especially on innocent and defenseless life, and the unborn child in the womb is the most concrete example of innocence. Let us remember the words of the Second Vatican Council: From the moment of its conception, life must be guarded with the greatest care while abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes.” (Gaudium et Spes, 51)
“Church slammed by UN, grilled about sexual abuse, heavily criticised…”
Just a sample of some of the headlines I came across yesterday and today. All because of the regular report that the Holy See has to make to the United Nations because it signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child back in 1990. The Holy See joined such countries as Germany, the Congo and Yemen in reporting yesterday, but was the single signatory singled out in the media. In a way that is understandable. After all, no country or international body has been so heavily scrutinised for its sexual abuse record in recent years, and no country or international body has been so open about it or active in fighting this horrible crime and sin. Not even the United Nations itself can boast about that.
As Archbishop Silvano Tomasi (pictured above at left), the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, explained in his opening statement yesterday, recent years have seen a major effort on the part of the Holy See to fight the scourge of sexual abuse. This has happened in sharpening laws, but also in continuous reminders by Popes Benedict XVI and Francis (the latter did so as recently as yesterday). Local Churches have also been called to strengthen their efforts and create extensive programs to root out the evil of sexual abuse and to assist the victims. A good example mentioned by Archbishop Tomasi is the one of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (this week, the Diocese of Stockton became the tenth American diocese to file for bankruptcy because of financial compensation to victims of abuse – an example of how far they are going to aid the victims). Other bishops’ conferences, among them the Dutch, are also undertaking unprecedented efforts to address the problem. This indicates where the fight is taking place: not in the higher echelons of the Vatican, but primarily on the ground, in the local communities, where the victims and perpetrators may be found. And also the place, as Bishop Charles J. Scicluna (pictured above at right), also present at the meeting yesterday, says, where the laws of specific countries must be enacted and followed.
The question of the efficiency of these measures, as John L. Allen Jr. explains, is a matter of debate. It will take time to find that out. But the fact that steps are being taken is a clear sign that the Holy See is taking its obligations seriously.
What we see in the criticism, however, is that it generally wants to change the past. Time and again we hear about serious mistakes that the Holy See made in dealing with past abuse cases, mistakes the Holy See fully acknowledges and regrets. We see little to no recognition or understanding of the current efforts, in which the Holy See is leading the way for many other countries and international institutions. The past can’t be changed, but how we relate to people today and in the future can.
Sexual abuse of minors by clergy and members of the Church is an enormously painful and shameful affair for all Catholics. Pope Francis has rightly said we should be ashamed as a Church. We owe it to the victims to recognise their pain and to do our utmost to prevent it from ever happening again. I think that that is now being undertaken on the various levels of the Church. But in considering pain and attempting prevention we must always adhere to the truth. The truth that the past can’t be changed, that for a good number of years already the Church is taking her responsibility and taking effective steps in rooting out the evil of sexual abuse.