An end in sight? Taking responsibility for and compensating victims of sexual abuse

In the past five years, the Catholic Church in the Netherlands, in the form of her various dioceses and religious congregations, processed a total of 3,656 reports of sexual abuse by clergy and other representatives of the Church, paying out almost 21 million euros in 699 of those cases. The expectation is that the final compensations will be awarded in 2017, which will be the end of the abuse crisis which broke in 2010 and mainly revolved around abuse which took place between 1945 and 1980.

The largest total amounts were paid out by the (Arch)dioceses of Utrecht, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Haarlem-Amsterdam and Roermond, as well as the Brothers CMM (which tops the list with 1,885,000 euros paid out in 64 cases).

Of the 3,656 initial reports of sexual abuse, roughly half (1,815) became actual cases (some of the initial claimants either never pressed charges or later withdrew them), and of these, 699 have resulted in a financial compensation in some form (out of 820 requests received – some of these are still to be processed and will receive a compensation in the future). This number does not include the cases which were settled in private between the parties involved, or those that were settled with the help of an independent mediator. In a significant number of cases, victims never requested financial compensation.

The annual report of the Meldpunt for sexual abuse in the Church, from which these statistics come, emphasises that secrecy in these settlements is standard. Several weeks ago, there was some consternation about Church entities requiring victims to remain silent about the settlement and the nature of the abuse they suffered. Evidence about perpetrators which becomes known through settlements can and is being used as supporting evidence in other cases, and the Meldpunt has frequently reminded Church institutions and victims’ groups of the need to inform them of settlements made, for that purpose. The Brothers CMM, the Salesians, the Brothers of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, the Brothers FIC and the Brothers of Charity have settled the largest number of reports and cases. This does not indicate any form of secrecy of protection of reputation, unless the secrecy clause was imposed against the victims’ wishes. If that has happened, they were free to settle a case outside the available channels provided by the Church, as some have done. If there were institutions who enforced secrecy, these should have a long hard think about their conduct…

It is clear that the damage done by abusive priests, religious and other Church workers has been great. The Church’s response has been likewise. In many cases the abusers are deceased, so this response must necessarily be given by their current representatives, even when those are innocent themselves. And it has been given willingly in most cases, in a structered and legal way. This approach has sometimes clashed with the inherently emotional nature of the acts and their lifelong effects on the victims. The Church has been accused of being clinical, slow and bureaucratic in dealing with abuse, and perhaps she has sometimes failed in being sufficiently open and pastoral towards victims. But she has taken responsibility, albeit too late in more than a few cases: abuse should never have been denied and hidden in the first place.

The fact remains that in many parts of society this is exactly what continues happening now. The Catholic Church has a reputation of being a haven for abusers, and as painful and wrong as that may be, it is something we must live with for now. The Church has accepted this burden and carries it, with an eye first on the victims and their rights and needs. That is something that other sectors of society could learn from. Sexual abuse of minors has happened and continues to happen, in families, schools, hospitals and other care facilities, sports clubs… Are the victims of that abuse heard? Do those people and institutions also take their responsibility, regardless of their reputation?

A sad case – press statements about the Heel affair

Various other news sources have already reported about the conclusion from an investigation into a series of unexplained deaths of young boys at a Catholic institute (pictured) for mentally handicapped boys in the 1950s. It is a story of people not taking responsibility, both in the institute, the Diocese of Roermond and the Labour Inspection office of the government. The guilty party has been identified as one Brother Andreas, now deceased, who was not qualified to treat the boys in question, but the medical doctor and rector of the institute, which was run by the Brothers of Charity, also must be considered (partly) responsible. The same may also go for several diocesan officials, who ordered a limited investigation, but decided not to do anything with the results.

Following the extensive investigation into sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church in the Netherlands, conducted by the Deetman Committee, the Public Prosecutor started an investigation into what happened all those years ago. No one involved, alive or not, can be legally prosecuted because of the passage of time.

For the sake of completeness, and for the use of anyone interested, here follows the English translation of the press release of the Diocese of Roermond concerning this matter:

The Diocese of Roermond has taken notice of the results of the Public Prosecutor’s criminal investigation concerning the St. Joseph’s Institute in Heel in the 1950s, released today (Thursday 28 June). The report’s conclusion are considered as shocking.

The diocese finds it inexplicable that the diocese made no report to the authorities and regrets that the investigation did not clarify the motives. Nevertheless, the fact that all means were used to reach a balanced perception of the events at the time is laudable.

The diocese especially wishes to pay attention to the suffering of the victims and the sorrows of their relatives.

The Conference of Dutch Religious released a more extensive, if broadly similar press statement, adding that no further investigation will be undertaken into the actions (or lack thereof) of the medical doctor and others involved. In a way that’s understandable, since none of those people are alive today, but I can’t help thinking that this Brother Andreas is presented as a scapegoat. But consider his membership of the Brothers of Charity and his function with the institute, there are superiors who must share in the responsibility.

Photo credit: ANP