Having just watched the press conference about the final report of the Deetman committee, I am letting the words and number sink in. I took some notes as Mr. Deetman elaborated on the conclusions of the 18-month investigation, and I will use those to compose this blog post. For readers who want a more thorough explanation: you can download a summary in English here. The complete report, consisting of two hefty books, can be purchased from the publisher or in bookstores.
The title of this post can be considered the main conclusion that the committee drew, the question of “what has happened in society that led to such outbursts of violence?” Said violence included the sexual abuse in Catholic institutions, but also much more beyond. That, I believe, is the question that society should ask itself, and which this report can hopefully help in finding a solution for.
Anyway, on the points of the conclusion which I jotted down:
Mr. Deetman started by expressing his surprise at finding that the structure of the Church was and is fragmented, despite impressions. Bishop, dioceses, orders and superiors often acted alone, keeping problems to themselves and trying to find solutions internally. The capacity to solve said problems was small or non-existent. The bishops had the topic of sexual abuse on the agenda since the late 1940s, but efforts to find solutions ceased at the onset of the Second Vatican Council and certainly at the Pastoral Council. Many other things that needed answers led to the abuse question being buried and forgotten. Only in the 1980s, when women’s movements drew attention to the abuse of women, did the sexual abuse of minors return to the agenda of the bishops. This led to the creation of the Hulp & Recht agency, the first in the world of its kind.
The issue of cultural silence, the statement that people simply did not know, can not be upheld. People, including the Catholic laity, did know, but didn’t act on it, and when they did, the focus was on the perpetrators. Mr. Deetman explains that this was fed by canon law, which as an internal legal body is focused on the the identity and behaviour of those within the Church. Victims were left out in the cold for various reasons, including the fact that talking about sexuality was a taboo and the concept of a person with authority committing such things was, frankly, not believed.
Returning to the aforementioned pastoral council, this gave the impression that the Church’s teaching about celibacy would change soon. All the priests contacted by the Deetman committee, who became priests in this time, said they did so with the expectation that they would soon not be required to live celibate anymore.
Of a survey among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, the committee drew the following conclusions, although it stresses that the numbers should be treated extremely careful and that the margins are intentionally large.
- 1 in every 10 Dutch people aged 40 and older (which is 9.7% of the population) has been at one time sexually approached by someone from outside the family before they were 18.
- This number is slightly higher among Catholics, but that is not because of the religion. Cultural, social, economic and other factors also play a part.
- The chance of sexual harassment is twice as high within confined relationships of authority, such as schools and daycare centres. This, again, is not limited to Catholic institutions, but also occurs elsewhere.
- 1 in every 2 to 300 people have some experience with sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, in our outside specific institutions. The chance of such is higher in boarding schools. The reason: Failed supervision.
- The total number of abused people, who were minors at the time and spent at least a part of their youth in boarding schools, is 10 to 20,000. In total, the number is in the several tens of thousands. The abuse has a wide range, from mild and without physical contact to involving penetration. The severity and the consequences are therefore equally divergent. There were about 1,000 serious cases within boarding schools, and several thousand outside it.
The question of whether celibacy plays a role in whether or not a man is likely to abuse a minor can be answered with a no. There is no evidence that celibacy leads to abuse. But Deetman stressed there that this is not a fact. The committee has simply been unable to find evidence for it, which does not mean it does not exist. Despite that, there have been several cases of sexuality out of need. If celibacy had been voluntary, a number of cases would not have happened.
And then, the final question: and now?
The work of the committee, Deetman said, was to a certain extent sad and frustrating, since it deals with an incomplete past which we can do nothing about. We can’t change the facts.
As for practical measures to prevent such horrible crimes happening again, the committee advised the bishops and the religious conference to appoint a single portfolio holder for the abuse question: a person who can keep an eye on things and be a recognisable go-to person and coordinator of the Church’s response to future developments. Archbishop Eijk has assured Mr. Deetman that there will a group of four people, including at least one bishop, to hold that portfolio.
One of the things this group will need to focus on is the continuing contact with victims. In the past, there have been meetings between bishops or superiors and victims from which the victims came back severely disappointed, while the bishop or superior thought it was a good conversation. Compensation, help, a listening ear and conversation, this is what is needed in the future. Human relations need to be restored, which include understanding and listening.
Later today, as I wrote in the previous post, the bishops and the religious conference will offer a reaction to all of the above.
Photo credit:  Antoin Peeters,  NRC/screenshot NOS