New revelations about sexual abuse, with the knowledge of a significant number of bishops no less, in the Catholic Church in the Netherlands? If certain headlines are to be believed, that is indeed the case. Reality, however, disagrees somewhat.
It all started with this article in major daily NRC. In it, reporter Joep Dohmen lists which bishops were in some way involved (peripherally or directly) in abuse cases between 18945 and 2010. At the bottom of his article he lists his sources, two of which are the report of the Deetman Commission and the commission collecting claims of abuse in the Church. Both are the result of the independent investigation which was commissioned by the Dutch Bishops’ Conference and the Conference of Dutch Religious in 2010. The third source is a study by NRC itself.
This, together with the dates mentioned, already shows that the news is not new. The majority of cases took place decades ago, and the 20 bishops listed by Mr. Dohmen are all no longer active (in fact, 14 of them are deceased). All of the cases mentioned have been known at least since 2011.
Having all the facts straight can only be good, and the article in NRC at least serves as a good reminder for the Church to keep working for the victims and to do everything to prevent future abuse of minors and vulnerable adults in the Church, and to see that the perpetrators are punished, if at all possible (after all, the law can do little against deceased persons, and is in many cases often limited by the statute of limitations). However, the NRC article has been labelled by some as populist. This in part because some of the facts presented are not necessarily the whole story. For example, the accusations against Bishop Jo Gijsen (bishop of Roermond from 1972 to 1993) have been challenged in court, with the judge determining that the evidence against the bishop was accepted all too readily and does not hold up in a court of law, and there are cases in which a bishop accepted the appointment of a bishop from another diocese without having been informed about his background.
That said, all of the above does not take anything away from the serious nature of sexual abuse, be it in the Church or elsewhere. No longer does any bishop have the excuse of claiming he couldn’t have known, or resort to simply transferring an abusive priest. Any bishop caught doing that should rightly be charged with aiding an abuser, and be punished accordingly.
However, this is the luxury of hindsight. As former spokesman of the bishops’ conference Jan-Willem Wits states in his excellent commentary on the article, such was the simple and painful reality:
“What I personally do not believe, and yet somehow read in the NRC pieces, is that bishops were a sort of leaders of a virtual criminal organisation which consciously closed its eyes to priests who could not control themselves. Of course the fear of a damaged reputation will have played its part, but I have seen a lot of shame and a lot of naivety. Especially the transferring of priests with abuse in their genes has, in hindsight, been unbelievably stupid and actually unforgivable. Now we know that the chance of recidivism is so very great that, even with therapy, let along after apologies and confession, it is only a matter of time for the bomb to blow.”
Hindsight is 20/20, they say. No one can change the past. But it can – and must – be a lesson. Lets hope that the lesson is being received.