New wave of abuse in the Church in the Netherlands? Not quite, but the need for vigilance remains

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.

eindrapport%20commissie%20DeetmanIt 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 Dohmen are all no longer active (in fact, 14 of them are deceased).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.

Four years later, the case against the bishop does not look as clear-cut

Bishop GijsenFour years ago, the commission charged with investigating accusations of sexual abuse against members of the clergy, decided that two such charges against the late Bishop Joannes Gijsen, ordinary of Roermond from 1972 to 1993, and of Reykjavik from 1996 to 2007, were plausible. As the bishop had died the year before, no legal action was possible against him. And that was for the better, it now turns out.

The local court of Gelderland judged this week that the commission had acted carelessly and broken basic legal regulations int he cases against Bishop Gijsen. The judge decided that the commission acted contrary to its own regulations, did not investigate the facts to a satisfactory extent and did not hear the defence. The court reproached the commission for accepting limited evidence: one charge against the bishop was deemed plausible simply because of the existence of a second unproven complaint.

The St. John foundation had charged the commission for unnecessary damaging the good name of clergy and other Church workers. Bishop Gijsen was one of the people they represented. The foundation considers the entire procedure followed by the commission in investigating charges of sexual abuse to be in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. The court thought otherwise and deemed this charge and others inadmissable, and thus offered no judgement on the guilt or innocence of Bishop Gijsen. But it did offer some stern words against the commission and their decisions, and so threw the conclusions of the last years into renewed doubt.


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An archbishop for Maastricht

While the actual diocese it is a part of remains vacant, the southern Dutch city of Maastricht had an archbishop appointed yesterday. Maastricht was among the first cities in what would later become the Netherlands to have a resident bishop, when it was established as a diocese in 530 (before that it had been a part of the Diocese of Tongres and Maastricht since the early 4th century). For almost two centuries it was the heart of the Catholic Church in the Limburg area, until it was suppressed in 720, its territory then falling under Liège. In 1971, Maastricht was re-established, but as a titular see, a diocese in name only, held by a bishop who was elsewhere active as an auxiliary bishop somewhere, in the Holy See diplomatic service or in the Roman Curia.

Ks_Sommertag_WSDNow, for the first time, the new titular bishop is an archbishop. He is the newly-appointed Apostolic Nuncio to Nicaragua, Msgr. Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag. He is appointed after a six-year vacancy of the titular see. His predecessors were Marcos Pérez Caicedo (2006-2010), now the archbishop of Cuenca in Ecuador; Bishop Joannes Gijsen (1993-1996), who was the titular bishop of Maastricht after retiring from Roermond and before being appointed to Reykjavik; and Bishop Petrus Moors (1970-1980), who became the titular bishop upon retiring as bishop of Roermond (a practice since abolished: retiring bishops of a diocese are no longer appointed to a titular see, simply being styled the bishop emeritus of their erstwhile diocese).

Archbishop-elect Sommertag is 50 years old and was born in Wiecbork, Poland. A priest of the Diocese of Pelplin, he has been in the diplomatic service of the Holy See since 2000, having served in Tanzania, Nicaragua, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Israel, Palestine and Cyprus as well as in the Section for Relations with States of the Secretariat of State. As Apostolic Nuncio to Nicaragua he will naturally work in that middle-American country, and he is bishop of Maastricht in name only, without any rights or duties in our country.

The Diocese of Maastricht is usually traced back to St. Servatius, whose remains are still buried in the city. The first historical source referring to the diocese dates from 535. It is unknown how far the influence of the bishops of Maastricht reached, but the diocesan borders may have somewhat coincided with those of the later Diocese of Liège, which means that it stretched from the Luxembourg Ardennes to northwestern Brabant, amking it equal to the later Diocese of Utrecht in the northern Netherlands. The cathedral of the diocese was one of the two ancient churches that still stand in Maastricht: the basilica of St. Servatius and the basilica of Our Lady.

Photo credit: Krzysztof Mania/KFP

For the north, the closest thing to a native son for bishop

tencerEight months after Bishop Pétur Bürcher’s requested retirement was accepted, the Diocese of Reykjavik gets ready to bid their ten-year bishop goodbye, and welcome a sort-of-native son as his successor. Bishop-elect Dávid Bartimej Tencer, O.F.M. Cap, while Slovak, has been active in Iceland as parish priest since 2004 and that makes him more of an Icelander than any of his four predecessors. The fact that the new bishop is yet to be ordained means that Reykjavik’s cathedral of Christ the King will see it’s first bishop’s ordination since 1988.

In a way this could be considered evidence that Reykjavik is grown up as a diocese, now that it can supply its own bishop. The Church in Iceland is largely an immigrant Church with some 13,000 faithful, and all but one of its priests coming from abroad.

Bishop-elect Tencer was ordained in 1986 for the Diocese of Banská Bystrica in south-central Slovakia, and for the following four years he worked in parishes there. In 1990 he started his novitiate in Order of Capuchin Friars Minor and made his profession the next year. From 1992 to 1994 he studied Franciscan spirituality at the Antonianum in Rome, after which he made his final profession. Back in Slovakia he held various offices within the order, including superior at a convent in Hrinová. In the period between 2001 and 2004 he taught various topics at two seminaries. In 2004, Bishop-elect Tencer came to Iceland and was appointed as parish priest in Reykjavik. Since 2007 he has been parish priest in Reyþarfjörþur and a member of the council of priests of the Diocese of Reykjavik.

Bishop emeritus Bürcher has tried his best to establish religious communities in his diocese, something that Bishop-elect Tencer is well suited to continue.

The Diocese of Reykjavik covers the entire country of Iceland and was established in 1923 as the Apostolic Prefecture of Iceland. In 1929 it became an Apostolic Vicariate and in 1968 a full Diocse. Bishop-elect Tencer will be the 7th ordinary and 5th bishop. His predecessors were:

  • Bishop Martino Meulenberg (Prefect Apostolic 1923-1929; Vicar Apostolic 1929-1941)
  • Bishop Johánnes Gunnarsson (Vicar Apostolic 1942-1967)
  • Bishop Hendrik Hubert Frehen (Bishop 1968-1986)
  • Bishop Alfred James Jolson (Bishop 1987-1994)
  • Bishop Joannes Baptist Mathijs Gijsen (Bishop 1996-2007)
  • Bishop Pétur Bürcher (Bishop 2007-2015)

Bishop-elect David Tencer’s ordination and installation as Bishop of Reykjavik is set for 31 October. Bishop emeritus Pétur Bürcher will remain in office until that date, after which he will divide his time between the Holy Land (where he will focus on prayer as well as organising spiritual exercisies and pilgrimages to support the local Christian communities) and Switzerland (where he will live with the Dominican sisters of St. Peter’s convent in Schwyz).

Another bishop falls

niënhausI 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…

“There is nothing worse” – Bishop Wiertz on sexual abuse

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.

abuse maastricht wiertz

“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

God brings an end to division

“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.