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Possibly in response to questions raised (especially in the United States) about the legal position of dioceses, religious orders, bishops, and the Vatican when it comes to child abuse cases, the Dutch bishops and the Conference of Dutch Religious have created a commission that will look into exactly that. The three-person commission consists of Prof. Mr. Siewert D. Lindenbergh (chairman), professor in Civil Law at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam; Mr. Jacqueline Meyst-Michels, a lawyer specialising in liability and injury law, especially in the medical field; and Mr. Joost Wildeboer, a lawyer specialising in injury and insurance law.
The new commission is tasked to take all relevant aspects of limitations, liability and damages according to civil and church law into account and come with an advice in early 2011. Until then, they will be working in private, being unavailable for the media until the aforementioned aspects have been considered.
An attempt to save skins, or to create clarity? The optimist in me favours the latter, and I think it has things going for it. Although the Netherlands is not (yet) a society as fond of the courtroom as the United States, the legal battles fought there do offer a lesson. How should the law treat a diocese or a bishop? Are they autonomous entities or employees of the Vatican or the local archbishop? Church law and customs have answers, but are these the same as the answers that civil law has?
The abuse crisis is not over. The accusations and stories of terrible crimes are being collected now. It remains to be seen how the legal battle turns out.
The Dutch bishops and the Conference of Dutch Religious have today fully accepted the proposal for an investigation into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in the Netherlands, from 1945 to today. Msgr. Gerard de Korte, spokesman on the abuse issues, announced this in a press conference.
This is the text of the press release, in my translation:
Press release Dutch Bishops’ Conference and Conference of Dutch Religious on proposal for investigation sexual abuse
Utrecht, 11 May 2010 – The Dutch Bishops’ Conference and the Conference of Dutch Religious (KNR) have today expansively discussed the proposal for investigation of sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church in the Netherlands. They express an honest word of gratitude towards drs. W. J. Deetman who has succeeded in presenting a thorough and very complete proposal on short notice.
The bishops and the manager of the KNR once again emphasise that they condemn forcefully every form of sexual abuse. Abuse is contrary to the Gospel and the dignity of the human person. To those who were victims of abuse within the Catholic Church, religious superiors and bishops again offer their heartfelt sympathy and apologies. Victims who have not yet come forward are called to do so at either Hulp & Recht or the committee.
The number of reports of abuse necessitates a thorough investigation, according to religious superiors and bishops. On 9 March of this year they asked Mr. Deetman to advise them on how to best shape a broad, external and independent investigation. The asked the former chairman of parliament to gather the required expertise, formulate a plan and set out a timeline.
The bishops and the managers of the KNR fully agree with the proposal as it is now and the intended composition of the committee. They promise their full cooperation and will work to make all relevant information available to the committee. In that context they support the call from Mr. Deetman to the perpetrators of sexual abuse to come forward and report to the committee.
Regarding the time line, the bishops and religious superiors agree that priority will be given to advice on the aid to the victims. Although relief is already started through the procedures of Hulp & Recht or through meetings between victims and confidential counsellors of dioceses, orders and congregations, the bishops and religious superiors consider it very important to hear from the committee on short notice whether the available help is desired and how existing procedures may be optimised.
Bishops and managers of the KNR request Mr. Deetman to take on the duties of chairman of the committee. They thank the members of the committee who are willing to participate in the investigation. The religious superiors and the bishops have full confidence that this committee will run a transparent, independent and scientific investigation. That independence and transparency is exactly what the victims have a right to and which is necessary for the Church to help the victims as well as possible and to effectively prevent future abuse.
In my opinion this is the best decision they could have made. This is such an enormous issue, both in size and gravity, that the only way to reach a solution is full openness. A patient can’t cure himself. He needs someone else for that, someone who can clinically and objectively consider the problem, analyse it and search for a solution. In the case of the abuse crisis, the Church needs it to heal and the victims need it be heard and recognised.
Yes, I do expect there will be very painful consequences as more cases emerge and conclusions are drawn. Painful for the victims, for the responsible parties, offenders but certainly also religious superiors and bishops, and painful for all Catholics. But that is what we need now. Healing can hurt sometimes, nothing to be done about it. We can no longer tranquilise ourselves in a culture of silence.
In the course of 2011 there will be a report with an overview of what happened, how it could have happened and exactly what penance and justice, according to Church and state, must be achieved. But the slate will then be clean.
In The Hague, Wim Deetman is wrapping up his press conference where he presented the advice that he has given to the Dutch bishops’ conference and the Conference of Dutch Religious (KNR) about how they should tackle the abuse crisis. I’ve been taking notes as the details were given, and there are two main points I want to highlight. First of all the five points on which the investigation must focus, and secondly the people who will form the committee. The two conferences will be discussing the advice on Tuesday. As Dr. Deetman said, his is only an advice. We must wait until Tuesday to see how it will be received and implemented, but, judging by the attitude of the bishops and the KNR towards Deetman’s work, I would be very surprised if they did not take this advice in total.
The five main points of the investigation:
The committee must collect data, either via the existing lists of known victims or, if these are not adequate, via their own survey. They should not only appeal to the victims, but also to the offenders, if these are yet unknown.
Archives: Deetman decided to look at the period from 1945 until now, so that requires a certain amount of archival work. This will also allow show how authorities dealt with abuse in the past.
Comparison: Once collected, the numbers must be compared to the data from outside the Catholic Church and the Netherlands. The question of whether this is a problem endemic to Catholic institutions or to the Netherlands, or if it is wider social problem must be answered. The answers may seem clear now, but they must be supported by facts.
How could it have happened? What is the reason for the ‘culture of silence’, as Deetman put it? Society and the norms that were used, within and without Catholic circles, must be considered, as well as the legal framework. This calls for historical and sociological research.
The future. Advice about that can only be based on the investigation, but it is a clear goal for the committee.
Deetman expects that the investigation will take one year to eighteen months, at the most. Then the answers must be clear.
Deetman suggests a core of five people to form the committee. If needed, they can appoint others for specific topics and expertise. They are:
Dr. Nel Draijer, professor in Trauma and Personality at the Medical Centre of the Free University of Amsterdam, for her practical experience.
Mr. Pieter Kalbfleisch, Chairman of the board of the Netherlands Competition Authority, for his experience as a judge.
Prof. Dr. Harald Merkelbach, professor of Psychology at the University of Maastricht and member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences, for the psychological angle.
Prof. Dr. Marit Monteiro, professor of History of Dutch Catholicism at the Radboud University in Nijmegen, for the historical and sociological side.
Prof. Dr. Eng. Gerard de Vries, member of the Scientific Council of Government Policy and professor in Philosophy of Science at the University of Amsterdam, for an empirical weighing of the facts.
This advice generally follow what the conferences asked, but in some cases, Mr. Deetman advised an increased focus on things where he felt that was needed. Among these is the care for the victims. Although the committee will perform a factual investigation, but it will also take an immediate and close look at the support that exists for the victims. As he said, “There is no excess of specialists in the Netherlands”, so in order for the investigation to proceed adequately, the support and guidance that exists must be firmly established and well-documented.
A second point which Deetman added was an agreement with the office of the Attorney General that if there is a suspicion that a crime does not fall under the statute of limitations, those involved will be informed, so that they can still press charges if they so wish.
On Tuesday, the bishops and the KNR will release a press statement in which they’ll respond to this advice.
Yesterday the Dutch bishops announced that on 7 May Dr. Wim Deetman will present his advice about the independent investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in the Netherlands. Deetman was appointed to assemble a committee for the investigation and to establish how the investigation would proceed.
On 11 May the bishops and the Conference of Dutch religious will come with a joint statement about their reaction to Deetman’s advice. Until that date they will not respond on the content.
It’s all a bit later than expected (Deetman originally expected to be done before the end of this month), but it’s good to see it’s going ahead with only a minor delay. The investigation will be an independent one, which, I assume, is one of the reason that a non-Catholic was appointed to form the committee and give the advice.