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

“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.

The heart of the report: “What on earth has gone wrong?”

The Deetman report, still wrapped in plastic before today's press conference

Having just watched the press conference about the final report of the Deetman committee, I am letting the words and number sink in. I took some notes as Mr. Deetman elaborated on the conclusions of the 18-month investigation, and I will use those to compose this blog post. For readers who want a more thorough explanation: you can download a summary in English here. The complete report, consisting of two hefty books, can be purchased from the publisher or in bookstores.

The title of this post can be considered the main conclusion that the committee drew, the question of “what has happened in society that led to such outbursts of violence?” Said violence included the sexual abuse in Catholic institutions, but also much more beyond. That, I believe, is the question that society should ask itself, and which this report can hopefully help in finding a solution for.

Anyway, on the points of the conclusion which I jotted down:

Mr. Deetman started by expressing his surprise at finding that the structure of the Church was and is fragmented, despite impressions. Bishop, dioceses, orders and superiors often acted alone, keeping problems to themselves and trying to find solutions internally. The capacity to solve said problems was small or non-existent. The bishops had the topic of sexual abuse on the agenda since the late 1940s, but efforts to find solutions ceased at the onset of the Second Vatican Council and certainly at the Pastoral Council. Many other things that needed answers led to the abuse question being buried and forgotten. Only in the 1980s, when women’s movements drew attention to the abuse of women, did the sexual abuse of minors return to the agenda of the bishops. This led to the creation of the Hulp & Recht agency, the first in the world of its kind.

The issue of cultural silence, the statement that people simply did not know, can not be upheld. People, including the Catholic laity, did know, but didn’t act on it, and when they did, the focus was on the perpetrators. Mr. Deetman explains that this was fed by canon law, which as an internal legal body is focused on the the identity and behaviour of those within the Church. Victims were left out in the cold for various reasons, including the fact that talking about sexuality was a taboo and the concept of a person with authority committing such things was, frankly, not believed.

Returning to the aforementioned pastoral council, this gave the impression that the Church’s teaching about celibacy would change soon. All the priests contacted by the Deetman committee, who became priests in this time, said they did so with the expectation that they would soon not be required to live celibate anymore.

Of a survey among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, the committee drew the following conclusions, although it stresses that the numbers should be treated extremely careful and that the margins are intentionally large.

  1. 1 in every 10 Dutch people aged 40 and older (which is 9.7% of the population) has been at one time sexually approached by someone from outside the family before they were 18.
  2. This number is slightly higher among Catholics, but that is not because of the religion. Cultural, social, economic and other factors also play a part.
  3. The chance of sexual harassment is twice as high within confined relationships of authority, such as schools and daycare centres. This, again, is not limited to Catholic institutions, but also occurs elsewhere.
  4. 1 in every 2 to 300 people have some experience with sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, in our outside specific institutions. The chance of such is higher in boarding schools. The reason: Failed supervision.
  5. The total number of abused people, who were minors at the time and spent at least a part of their youth in boarding schools, is 10 to 20,000. In total, the number is in the several tens of thousands. The abuse has a wide range, from mild and without physical contact to involving penetration. The severity and the consequences are therefore equally divergent. There were about 1,000 serious cases within boarding schools, and several thousand outside it.
Deetman during the press conference

The question of whether celibacy plays a role in whether or not a man is likely to abuse a minor can be answered with a no. There is no evidence that celibacy leads to abuse. But Deetman stressed there  that this is not a fact. The committee has simply been unable to find evidence for it, which does not mean it does not exist. Despite that, there have been several cases of sexuality out of need. If celibacy had been voluntary, a number of cases would not have happened.

And then, the final question: and now?

The work of the committee, Deetman said, was to a certain extent sad and frustrating, since it deals with an incomplete past which we can do nothing about. We can’t change the facts.

As for practical measures to prevent such horrible crimes happening again, the committee advised the bishops and the religious conference to appoint a single portfolio holder for the abuse question: a person who can keep an eye on things and be a recognisable go-to person and coordinator of the Church’s response to future developments. Archbishop Eijk has assured Mr. Deetman that there will a group of four people, including at least one bishop, to hold that portfolio.

One of the things this group will need to focus on is the continuing contact with victims. In the past, there have been meetings between bishops or superiors and victims from which the victims came back severely disappointed, while the bishop or superior thought it was a good conversation. Compensation, help, a listening ear and conversation, this is what is needed in the future. Human relations need to be restored, which include understanding and listening.

Later today, as I wrote in the previous post, the bishops and the religious conference will offer a reaction to all of the above.

Photo credit: [1] Antoin Peeters, [2] NRC/screenshot NOS

After many months, the big day has come

Wim Deetman during an earlier press conference

Perhaps fittingly in this time of the year, as the penitential season of Advent draws to a close, we start this day with trepidation and expectation. Two hours from now, the final report from the Deetman committee will be released with an accompanying press conference, which will be televised live. To indicate the importance of today’s events, rumour has it that not Bishop Gerard de Korte, who has been face and voice of the Church in this crisis, will lead a later press conference in the afternoon, but the bishops’ conference president, Archbishop Wim Eijk. Here, the bishops will react to the Deetman report. The Conference of Dutch Religious, meanwhile, announces the publication of an open letter to the victims, expected online at the end of the afternoon.

Whatever the report’s conclusions, many rightfully expect them to be damning. Not just about how the Church dealt with the horrific crimes of its clergy and laity in the past, but certainly also with how things are being handled now. There is no doubt that the improvement made is enormous, but it has also been very Dutch: practical to the end, with a focus on monetary compensation and efficient handling. There is much to say for that, and legally there is virtually nothing wrong with it. But many still miss a pastoral solution, among them Mr. Wim Deetman himself. The Church, first and foremost, still needs to learn to listen. More than efficient solutions and financial compensation, an attentive ear opens the way to healing for so many victims, not just of sexual abuse. I think we all know that from experience.

That subject may be mentioned at the press conference, but there have already been signs that the bishops are still divided on it. Will a pastoral gesture of regret and penitence be welcomed or seen as empty theatrics? A good question, and I fear the chance of the latter is quite great, but I don’t think the bishops should lose sight of the fact that any act of penitence, public or not, must come from within. If it doesn’t, it will be empty theatrics.

In the meantime, this morning we await the conclusions and the numbers, and not least the aftermath. I, and as I’ve already seen here and there, others too ask for prayer for the victims and also for the Church in this country.

St. Willibrord and St. Boniface, pray for us.

Photo credit: Reformatorisch Dagblad

A financial plan in the right direction

In the past week, a settlement scheme has been created for the victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in the Netherlands. As a matter of course, the bishops and the Conference of Dutch Religious agreed with the plan. The plan, which aims at speedy recompense and settlement, has five stages of financial compensation, based on the type of abuse that was committed.

  • Sexual acts or expressions which damage the physical or mental integrity: €5,000
  • Touching of private parts: €7,500
  • Touching of private parts over a prolonged period: between €10,000 en €20,000 depending on frequency, gravity and additional circumstances
  • Rape, once or several times: €25,000
  • Excessive sexual abuse, with substantial and verifiable damage to the victim: a maximum of €100,000

Victim support groups, such as Mea Culpa and Klokk are carefully satisfied with the plan, although some details, and the speed with which the bishops responded are not entirely to their wishes. Klokk, oddly enough, wants to be involved in establishing a pan of compensation and bringing the victims into contact with the bishops and the religious. Something that, in my opinion, has already happened, partly by the above plan.

Wim Deetman, who led the committee which set all this in motion, gives the advice that the conferences of bishops and religious need to acknowledge the abuse and be sympathetic to the victims. I think they have at east partially done so already, although there is always room for improvement. Another suggestion by Deetman may speed this improvement along: he suggests the appointment of one bishop who can be the link between victims and conferences. I think Bishop Gerard de Korte (right) has done this for the most part already: he is at least the face of the bishops’ conference in these matters, having appeared in television and in other media to discuss it.

In the past year or so, they way that the Church deals with the abuse crisis has crystallised into a system which can get things done, although it is still plagued by that most Dutch of problems: bureaucracy. If that problem can be solved, I think we are on the right track, although much work still needs to be done, especially when it comes to the contacts with the victims.

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.