Victims first, communication second – parliament hears the contact group

Two days ago, the parliamentary committee on Safety and Justice heard various representatives of the Catholic Church and the Netherlands and victims of sexual abuse by clergy, among them Mr. John Bakker, accountant of the Diocese of Rotterdam and member of the contact group – the ‘safety net’ led by Rotterdam’s Bishop Hans van den Hende. The main question that Mr. Bakker was asked to answer was this:

“The committee would like the present the question of which next step the ecclesial organisations (bishops’ conference and the orders and congregations) should take to answer the serious concerns in society, and especially those of the victims, considering the commotion surrounding especially the report that, within or under the influence of the Catholic Church or her organisations (including the orders and congregations), castration (and therefore serious physical violence) took  place as a remedy against, among others, homosexuality.

You can perhaps explain in which way one assumes to answer to this, and address the criticism of victims about the way the Catholic Church handles complaints.”

While Mr. Bakker explained how the contact group works – as an addition to and watchdog over the regular contacts between victims or their representatives and dioceses, orders and congregations -, repeated the assurance given by Cardinal Eijk and Brother Cees van Dam that the Church is fully willing to cooperate with civil authorities in cases connected to the castration reports, and emphasised the work of the legally independent Foundation of Management and Supervision concerning Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church in the Netherlands, he included some interesting paragraphs about the role of communication in the abuse crisis.

Communication is all-important, as the Church needs and wants to be fully transparent about the past abuses and the way she works towards compensation and recognition. But, Mr. Bakker (pictured) says:

“We note here that communication with victims needs be established carefully per person or group of victims. The Catholic Church’s aspiration towards public recognition and apology is, in a way, subordinate to that. What matters is what the Catholic Church can specifically do for people who, as minors, were victims of sexual abuse by a representative of the Church. To the degree that public recognition and apology are of service to that, it is sought.

The fact remains that, in many cases, the communication of the Catholic Church is a story of numbers (numbers of reports, complaints, etc.). But numbers never do credit to what sexual abuse has done to the lives of young people. And wherever the Catholic Church, in coordination with victims, has brought matters to a good close, and tires to deliver custom work as such, that is no more than fitting and what may be expected of the Church.”

The victims’ desire and need for recognition, compensation and apology takes a clear precedence over a mere superficial transparency in, say, the media. This is not the easiest road, perhaps, as the meetings between the contact group and the victims, as well as their results, take place behind close doors. Only when there are questions, like now from a parliamentary committee, or when victims want it, are things made public. It seems a proper attitude to have, but it does make the Church vulnerable to her enemies, who still make accusations of secrecy and the Church protecting her own.

But it is good to see that progress is made, especially by this contact group. I think it can play a major role in the process towards reconciliation.

Quotes in this post were taken from the note prepared by Mr. Bakker before the hearing. The full note is available, in Dutch, here.

Photo credit: Diocese of Rotterdam

“Recognition, reparation, compensation, care and aftercare” – improvements in helping the victims

In a five-page letter to Justice Secretary Ivo Opstelten, the Dutch Bishops’ Conference and the Conference of Dutch Religious (KNR) have once again underlined their firm intention of providing recognition, reparation, compensation, care and aftercare for the victims of sexual abuse within the Church.

The letter, signed by Cardinal Willem Eijk for the bishops and Brother Cees van Dam for the KNR, also gives an overview of what has been done, is being done and will be done to further implement the recommendations of the Deetman committee, as published in December of last year. Among the improvements that the bishops and the KNR intend to implement is an increased level of monitoring how the aforementioned measures are being executed. Mr. Deetman and the members of his committee will take care of annual evaluation, and the bishops and the KNR will do the same. A first such report will be presented on May 15th.

The letter then lists four important developments since the last time parliament heard, among others, then-Archbishop Eijk. These are:

  1. The creation of a ‘contact group’, chaired by Bishop Hans van den Hende of Rotterdam, which works in addition to personal meetings of bishops and superiors with victims and victim groups, and will serve as a sort of safety net for victims when progress in their case should stagnate. The contact group has spoken with victim group KLOKK on the first of March, and has planned a subsequent meeting on 5 April.
  2. The Aid Platform is discussing further optimalisation of aid to the victims with KLOKK and Slachtofferhulp Nederland.
  3. A uniform code of conduct for the entire Church province is in the works, to further unify the previously fragmented management structures of the various dioceses and religious orders.
  4. All future priests, deacons, pastoral workers and others with a mission from a bishop, as well as certain religious men and women who work in pastoral care are now required to present a certificate of good conduct. This has long been the case for people who work in education, for example.

The letter is rather silent about the recent castration issue, but that is only logical. Mr. Deetman will be heard by parliament tomorrow about that very issue.

A final important issue that the letter addresses is the statute of limitations. Following a question from Secretary Opstelten, the bishops and the KNR write that that has been invoked in one case, a case that yet awaits a verdict from a judge. Only in civil procedures that aim for financial compensation outside the means that have been provided by the Church, can the statute be theoretically invoked. In my opinion, it would be better if it were never invoked, not least because that is exactly what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith generally does in these cases, as that congregation’s promoter of justice, Msgr. Charles Scicluna, revealed earlier.

Lastly, the letter comes with a few statistics, which show how much progress still needs to be made before the current claims and complaints have been processed. 2,364 reports and 919 complaints have been received over the course of 2010, 2011 and the first months of 2012. Of the 257 complaints processed, 157 have been declared justified, 57 unfounded,  have been settled amicably, and 40 have been retracted or deemed inadmissible. Since the middle of January, 86 requests for financial compensation have been received; a verdict has been reached in seven of these.

I am sure that many will find fault with some of the details of the letter and the things described in it, but in my opinion, it is a good indication of exactly what has been done in recent months, often behind the scenes and in private. And that is admirable. There is always room for progress, and the letter allows for that. It looks beyond the current situation and take the first steps to prevent something like this ever again.

Advice to bishops and religious: compensate victims graciously

In a succinct yet thorough advice, the Lindenbergh Commission, established by the bishops’ conference and the Conference of Dutch Religious, has published their recommendations regarding financial compensation to victims of sexual abuse by priests, religious and others employed by Catholic institutions.

In essence, the advice foresees the creation of a collective financial responsibility for all Catholic institutions. In five categories, the Lindenbergh Commission recommends financial compensation ranging from 5,000 to 100,000 euros. An independent commission of non-Catholics is to judge the compensation in individual cases. No accused party may refer to the statute of limitations to avoid payment, and neither is appeal an option.

It’s a strict and clear advice, which has been welcomed by victims’  associations and spokesmen. Speaking for the bishops and religious, Bishop Gerard de Korte and Brother Cees van Dam have repeated that the interest of the victim comes first. They will be studying the advice given, and will await another report about the reorganisation of aid organisation Hulp & Recht, before deciding on the actual implementation.

Read the full report (in Dutch) here.

Calling the guilty

“Please come forward, because there is a great problem! Not only within the Roman Catholic Church, but in a broader context in society. That problem was created because of the perpetrators and they can help making that problem smaller, also in the interest of victims. So that is a moral call: come forward.”

Words spoken today by Dr. Wim Deetman in a radio interview, aimed at the perpetrators of abuse, sexual and otherwise, within the Catholic Church in the Netherlands. Deetman and his commission gave been working largely in silence since December, but this plea is an important part of the work they are doing. In order to be able to present as complete a picture of the situation and its causes, Deetman needs the perpetrators to come forward just as much, if not more, as the victims have done. The former have until 4 April to do so. And if they don’t? Well, the commission has a list of possible perpetrators and they will be contacting them themselves after 4 April.

“There can be no doubt about that. And a question will then be: why didn’t you come forward? That is also important for the victims to get clarity about the past and so be able to accept the past.”

Many cases that the Deetman commission have been investigating happened many years or decades ago and therefore fall under the statute of limitations. Six cases have been passed on to the Public Prosecutor, but Deetman does not expect that number to rise very much. Closed cases are also not free from investigation.

“When cases have been closed, there may have been good reasons, let me make that clear. But you should investigate if that has happened with just cause. I can’t bear to think that I get asked at the end of the year: did you consider that they were closed for bad reasons? And that the answer would then be: no, we just mindlessly assumed so, but didn’t look into it. That can’t be true.”

The bishops and the Conference of Dutch Religious accept and support Deetman’s call. They will communicate it internally in orders and dioceses, and, by mouth of Bishop Gerard de Korte and Brother Cees van Dam, have said they won’t just appeal to the conscience of people but also make use the legal measures available within dioceses, orders and congregations.