In the run-up to global abuse meeting, Bishop van den Hende and Dr. Deetman look to its outcome

Thursday will see the beginning of perhaps the most charged and certainly most anticipated Vatican event in some time: the bishops’ summit on abuse, in which the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences, representatives of religious movements and  the heads of a number of curia dicasteries will meet over the course of three days to discuss a unified approach to sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.  Expectations about its outcome are high, although they may be too high considering the brief length of the meeting and its focus, not on formulating unfified policies – these often already exist – but on getting every single bishop on the same time. After this week, no bishop should have the excuse of saying he did not know of any abuse or how to deal with it.

DSC_2699_31481e79b67ab70c5ca711c62299f166On behalf of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Hans van den Hende will attend the meeting in his capacity as the body’s president. The bishop of Rotterdam already met with the pope in December, together with Dr. Wim Deetman, who headed the Dutch investigation into the abuse that took place over past decades. This audience took place out of the pope’s desire to be informed about what the Dutch bishops had done to combat abuse and to compensate the victims. Some have seen that approach as an example for the rest of the world. Bishop van den Hende, in a recent interview, agrees with that, saying, “The joint approach of bishops and religious as it took shape in the Netherlands, in combination with an independent investigation and an independent procedure, is, I think, a good example of recognition and commitment with regards to the victims.”

About the expectations of the summit and its outcome, Bishop van den Hende is catious.

“Much will depend on the results of the meeting, that is to say if the goals established by the pope will be fully achieved. You can only come to plans of actions out of the recoginition of the seriousness of the abuse and the joint willingness to come to a true commitment. I am not sure if this can be achieved in the short timespan granted to the upcoming meeting, but it is necessary to take true steps forward in the world Church.”

In another interview, Dr. Deetman showed himself a bit more optimistic:

“I don’t know what the pope plans to do, he did not express himself about that to me. But if Pope Francis, in those four days in Rome, is able to convince the bishops that the abuse is a major problem which concerns the entire Church, and which requires a thorough approach, the meeting will in a sense already have been successful. Then something can be done on a global scale. That also means that a second meeting must soon follow.”

2018-12-18-Audientie_WimDeetman_00011_19122018-klein-465x300Dr. Deetman, shown at left while meeting Pope Francis, believes that the Dutch investigation and program of compensation is indeed an example of how things should be done in other locations as well.

“You must outsource such an investigation [into abuse]. Multidisciplinary and with free access to the archives. I emphasised that to the pope. Also very important: it concerns facts. Make sure that nothing remains swept under the carpet. If you want to properly investigate what went wrong in the various Church provinces and in the Vatican itself, it must be independent, and the results must be made public, with anjustification of the methods of investigation. Without any doubt.”

But Dr. Deetman also urged for caution:

“You must be careful, also when it concerns perpetrators. We have had to conclude that someone had been accused, but it later turned out that he or she could impossible have done it. You do damage someone’s reputation and name. And something else: something may be ‘plausible’, but even then there all kinds of degrees of plausibility”.

This is a good reminder. In recent headline cases in which prelates have been accussed of knowing of the actions of abusers – I mention a Cardinal Wuerl or Farrell – conclusions are drawn before the facts have been studied. This is not something that should be encouraged, although it is understandable when it comes to such horrible acts.

Photo credit: [2] Servizio Fotografico – L’Osservatore Romano

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To court: victim of abuse charges bishops and pope with being part of a criminal organisation

rechtbankAs the Catholic Church is gearing up for next month’s major summit on sexual abuse within her ranks, an interesting development in the Netherlands. A 74-year-old man, who was abused at the age of 13 while in seminary, is now charging the Catholic Church, the Dutch bishops and also the Pope with being part of a criminal organisation “with a goal of preventing or hindering the revelation of the abuse or the raping of minors”.

Mr. Theo Bruyns has already received financial damages for what he suffered, but says he is still chased by feelings of injustice, which is why he is now bringing criminal proceedings against the Church and her leaders. “They have discouraged, kept secret [the reporting of crimes], and organised it all. I have read all the documents and have seen how well this organisation functions. How they managed to hide and keep everything secret throughout the centuries”.

Professor Peter Tak of the University of Nijmegen, an internationally recognised expert in comparative criminal law, says that Mr. Bruyns has a difficult case, as the pope is not subject to Dutch law. “We do not automatically have the authority here to  try the Pope,” adding that he does not know if the pope, being a head of state, has diplomatic immunity. Bruyns’ lawyer, Jan Boone, is more certain:  “Trying the pope would be unique, but it is possible. It has been tried in America, but no decision has yet been made there.”

The Catholic Church in the Netherlands is keeping a low profile in commenting on this case, underlining that it regrets and condemns sexual abuse. “Mr Bruyns has the right to now follow this path through the means of legal action.” The Church will await the reaction of the public prosecutor “and will obviously cooperate fully.”

While the way the Dutch bishops’ reacted to the abuse crisis as it broke in the Netherlands over the past decades has been thorough and an example for other parts of society, it is clear that it has not been comprehensive when it comes to satisfying all victims. A financial compensation, which is also a recognition of the abuse suffered, clearly does not automatically alleviate feelings of injustice, as in the case of Mr. Bruyns. Perhaps it is good to learn that not all the harm and damage done by abusers can ever be remedied. Some scars will remain, which makes the whole sordid affair only that more painful.

Should this case succeed, it would have serious repercussions across the world. No serious court of law has accused bishops or pope, and I personally doubt if this will happen. There have been past attempts in the Netherlands at listing the Church as a criminal organisation, which have all failed. The Dutch criminal law code identifies a criminal organisation as “having the purpose of committing crimes”. A legal database offers further  factors, from past jurisprudence, stating that a criminal organisation must have “some degree of structure and organisation and must be lasting,” in addition to the aforementioned purpose of committing crimes. It seems that it must first be proven that the Catholic Church has that purpose, before any further conclusions can be drawn. I don’t see it happening.

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2019: A look ahead

A new year, so a good time to look ahead to what 2019 may bring. The year will undoubtedly have its share of surprises, but there are always some things we can know for sure.

Among these is the inevitable progression of time, and thus the aging out of cardinals. In 2019, ten cardinals will celebrate their 80th birthday and so lose their right to participate in a conclave for the election of a new pope, as well as any duties they may have in the curia. The umber of cardinal-electors will drop from 124 to 114. Still a sufficient number, but Pope Francis has shown that he wants to keep the electors as close to their theoretical maximum of 120 (or over it, as the case is now), so a consistory may be in the books sometime towards the end of the year, or at the start of 2020.

The cardinals aging out are:

  • jrkruk_20130907_kard_stanislaw_dziwisz_wislica_img_3893b30 January: Alberto Cardinal Suárez Inda, archbishop emeritus of Morelia, Mexico
  • 11 March: Orlando Beltran Cardinal Quevedo, archbishop emeritus of Cotabato, Philippines
  • 8 April: Edwin Frederick Cardinal O’Brien, Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem
  • 27 April: Stanislaw Cardinal Dziwisz, archbishop emeritus of Kraków, Poland (pictured at right)
  • 31 July: John Cardinal Tong Hon, bishop emeritus and apostolic administrator of Hong Kong, China
  • 16 August: Seán Baptist Cardinal Brady, archbishop emeritus of Armagh, Northern Ireland
  • 7 October: Laurent Cardinal Monsengwo Pasinya, archbishop emeritus of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • 11 October: Zenon Cardinal Grocholewski, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for Catholic Education
  • 14 October: Edoardo Cardinal Menichelli, archbishop emeritus of Ancona-Osimo, Italy
  • 15 October: Telesphore Placidus Cardinal Toppo, archbishop emeritus of Ranchi, India

Who may replace these cardinals among the electors is guesswork, as Pope Francis has never felt bound to pick his cardinals from the traditional places. Still, the list above could give some hints and we may assume that the Holy Father will choose cardinals for countries who no longer have any. That said, possible candidates could be Archbishop Marek Jedraszewski of Kraków, Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh and Archbishop Fridolin Ambongo Besungu of Kinshasa. Another source of new cardinals are the papal visits Pope Francis makes. He has made some of hosts cardinals in the past before. It may therefore be possible that we may see new cardinals from Panama, the Arabian peninsula, Morocco, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania (all confirmed visits), and perhaps Japan, Mozambique and Uganda (rumoured visits).

Closer to home, a number of dioceses will be looking forward to new bishops this year. In the Netherlands, the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam has just received a coadjutor bishop, although the sitting ordinary, Bishop Jos Punt, expects to remain in office until his 75th birthday in 2021. Health permitting, of course.

luc van looy gent - bisdom genrt_0In Belgium, Bishop Luc Van Looy of Ghent (pictured at left) has already had his retirement accepted. At 77, he completed a two-year extension to his mandate last year. He is to remain in office until the appointment and installation of his successor. Namur’s Bishop Remy Vancottem is, at 75, also past retirement age, so the southeastern diocese may see a new bishop before the year is out as well.

In Germany, Bishop Konrad Zdarsa of Augsburg will turn 75 in June. Among the country’s auxiliary bishops, there is room in Freiburg im Breisgau where erstwhile auxiliary Bishop Michael Gerber was appointed to Fulda in December.

In the headline-making department, there is of course next month’s meeting of the heads of all the bishops’ conferences in Rome, to discuss a unified Church response to the abuse crisis. Among the participants will be Bishop Hans van den Hende for the Netherlands, Cardinal Jozef De Kesel for Belgium, Cardinal Reinhard Marx for Germany and Bishop Czeslaw Kozon for Scandinavia.

Currently gearing up in Panama, the World Youth Days will take place from 22 to 27 January. The first group of Dutch pilgrims have departed for the Central American country today, with more to follow. Among them will be Bishops Everard de Jong and Jan Hendriks. Bishop de Jong is again replacing Bishop Rob Mutsaerts, who has decided to stay at home as he is recovering from unplanned – and not further specified – surgery. Last year, Bishop Mutsaerts elected not to take part in the Synod assembly on youth and vocation in Rome. Bishop de Jong went in his stead.

cq5dam.thumbnail.cropped.750.422In October, the Synod of Bishops will gather again for a special assembly for the Pan-Amazonian region, to discuss the specific challenges for the Church there. The expectations are high, as many assume to what will be decided there, especially on the topic of married priests, will have global consequences. Participation in the special assembly is limited to bishops from the area, which means there is a minute Dutch link, at least when it comes to language, in the person of the bishop of Paramaribo, Msgr. Karel Choennie. Bishop Choennie is a member of the pre-synodal council preparing the special assembly in cooperation with Synod of Bishops’ general secretariat.

2019 will undoubtedly bring much to be discussed in (social) media, and there is still plenty being carried over from previous years. Keeping track of everything, let alone formulating thoughts and responses can sometimes be a challenge, but it’s probably a good idea to remember that not finding words or timely responses does not mean one does not care. There are many opinions, and many eloquent ones at that, to be found everywhere. And, perhaps more importantly, there are also answers to be found in the past. After all, what was true and good in the past remains true and good now. That is something to remember when we are confronted with questions and developments which seem to challenge our beliefs, understanding and even faith. We have a deposit of faith and exegesis to fall back on, and many of today’s questions and challenges are not new ones.

Photo credit: [1] Jarosław Roland Kruk / Wikipedia, licence: CC-BY-SA-3.0, [2] kerknet.be

Head of the Dutch bishops meets the Pope – some speculations about how the Church fights abuse

Although no details have emerged about yesterday’s private audience of Bishop Hans van den Hende and Dr. Wim Deetman with Pope Francis, the mere names of the participants make it virtually impossible to not conclude that the abuse crisis must have been at the heart of the encounter.

DSC_2699_31481e79b67ab70c5ca711c62299f166Bishop van den Hende (at right) is the bishop of Rotterdam and the president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference and, as such, will take part in February’s meeting in Rome with all the heads of the world’s bishops’ conference to discuss the abuse crisis and formulate a unified response. Dr. Deetman, former education minister and mayor of The Hague, headed the investigation into historical sexual abuse within the Catholic Church on behalf of the bishops and the Conference of Dutch Religious.

A recent study by the Dutch Broadcast Foundation (NOS) reveals that, in the seen years since the publication of the Deetman Commission’s conclusions, there have been 103 background checks on priests who were under consideration of being transferred or appointed in one of the Dutch dioceses. In one case a bishop blocked such a transfer or appointment because of past abuse claims against the priest involved. Similarly, a further 46 claims of “unacceptable behaviour” have been made since 2015, eight of which involved sexually unacceptable behaviour committed after the publication of the Deetman report. These all involved adults, not minors, and three of the claims are still under investigation. Two of the claims involve an unnamed religious movement which does not fall under the authority of a bishop and is also not a member of the Conference of Dutch Religious. An unidentified auxiliary bishop has informed the Vatican and the police about the movement and the claims against them, as well as his own bishop, who is keeping an eye on the developing situation.

Also interesting in light of the private audience is a letter sent to the participants in the meeting on “The Protection of Minors in the Church”, scheduled to take place from 21 to 24 February. The letter, issued by the organising committee consisting of Cardinals Cupich and Gracias, Archbishop Scicluna and Father Zollner, emphasised that “Absent a comprehensive and communal response, not only will we fail to bring healing to victim survivors, but the very credibility of the Church to carry on the mission of Christ will be in jeopardy throughout the world.” The authors urge the Conference presidents to reach out to and meet with victims before the meeting, something which the Dutch bishops, as well as bishops from other countries, have been doing over the last few years. In other countries, however, this is something new.* The letter concludes: “[E]ach of us needs to own this challenge, coming together in solidarity, humility, and penitence to repair the damage done, sharing a common commitment to transparency, and holding everyone in the Church accountable.”

As said, it will probably remain unknown what Bishop van den Hende and Dr. Deetman discussed with the Pope, unless one of them chooses to reveal something, but if the abuse crisis was discussed, perhaps the actions of the Dutch bishops, which can be an example of correct policies, not just for the Church, but for society as a whole, will influence the preparations of the February meeting in a constructive and positive way.

* A recent development from the Archdiocese of Cologne comes to mind, where a priest from Cameroon had been working among the French-speaking faithful. This despite the fact that he had been laicised in his home diocese. However, for his work abroad, his bishop is said to have issued letters confirming his good standing… The exact details remain unclear. The laicisation is aid to have taken place in 2013, and there is talk of an emeritus bishop of the Archdiocese of Bertoua having provided credentials to the former priest. The only living emeritus archbishop of that see is Belgian-born Roger Pirenne, who retired in 2009. Why credentials were seemingly issued by a retired bishop, instead of current Archbishop Joseph Atanga, remains unclear. It is clear, however, that the abuse issues is not yet being taken seriously in all parts of the world. Let’s hope that the February meeting can do something to change that.

Photo credit: KN/Jan Peeters

“Not the right time” – +Mutsaerts stays at home

Mgr. drs. R.G.L.M. Mutsaerts

Less than a week after his participation in the Synod of Bishops assembly on youth and vocation was confirmed by the Holy See, Bishop Rob Mutsaerts announces that he will not go. The auxiliary bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch was the first choice of the bishops’ conference to take part in the three-week meeting in Rome as their delegate. As the brief statement from the bishops states:

“[Bishop Mutsaerts] informed Pope Francis that he does not think it is the right time to hold a synod on youth, considering the studies and the news about sexual abuse which came out in, among other places, America. He therefore chooses not to take part.”

The Dutch Bishops’ Conference respects the choice, but also states that the Synod is “a chance and an opportunity to address this in the context of the topic and discuss it with bishops from all countries of the world.”

The inability or – in this case – unwillingness of a chosen delegate to take part in the Synod has been foreseen in the preparations. In addition to one or more delegates, every bishops’ conference also chooses one or more substitutes to take over from a delegate if the need arises. The Dutch bishops have appointed Bishop Everard de Jong as subsistute for Bishop Mutsaerts, and the auxiliary bishop of Roermond will now travel to Rome instead.

de jong synod

For Bishop de Jong this will be the second Synod in which he takes part. In 2012 he participated in the Synod Assembly on the new evangelisation (first from left in the picture at right), where he emphasised the importance of the role of the Holy Spirit, proper spiritual formation and a courageous pro-life attitude

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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.

Three weeks before the Synod, the list is out

Few surprises in the list of participants in next month’s Synod of Bishops on youth of vocation, which was published on Saturday. As is par of the course for such assemblies, the bulk of the delegates is elected by their own bishops’ conferences and the heads of the Curia departments. The pope chooses a number of delegates himself, as well as representatives from other churches and church communities and experts on the topic of the Synod.

kockerolsAs announced earlier, the Dutch and Belgian bishops have each chosen an auxiliary bishop from among them to go to Rome: Bishops Rob Mutsaerts and Jean Kockerols (pictured) respectively. A second Belgian bishop was chosen by Pope Francis, however, As in the previous Synod on marriage and family, Ghent’s Bishop Luc Van Looy will also take part in the proceedings. It will probably be his last major role on the world stage, as he will reach the age of 77 at the end of this month, and, on papal request, his retirement has already been postponed by two years. Pope Francis also chose a second Benelux bishop, who is not a member of any bishops’ conference. Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, who also serves as president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the EU, the COMECE.

The German bishops’ conference, being rather larger than those of Belgium or the Netherlands, have elected three bishops to represent them: Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau, Bishop Felix Genn of Münster and Bishop Johannes Wübbe, auxiliary of Osnabrück.

The Nordic bishops have chosen the bishop of Reykjavik, Msgr. David Tencer.

With two exceptions, all the cardinals in Pope Francis’ own selection of delegates are ones he created himself. Some have chosen to see this as Francis ‘stacking the deck’, but that is a nonsensical conclusion. Of course the pope sees potential in these cardinals, and wants to make use of their abilities, or he wouldn’t have made them cardinals in the first place.