Looking behind

As the year of Our Lord 2011 draws to a close, I happily join the ranks of the countless media channels creating overviews of the years past. And both for this blog, as well as the Catholic Church in the Netherlands and abroad, it has been a tumultuous year, both positive and negative. Taking this blog as the goggles we use to look back, blog, Church and wider world become unavoidably intertwined, but, in a way, that is how it should be.

In January, we saw the announcement of the beatification of Pope John Paul II, the resignation of Rotterdam’s Bishop Ad van Luyn being accepted, and the launch of Blessed Titus Brandsma’s Twitter adventure.

February was the month of interesting considerations by Bishop Schneider about Vatican II, shocking new developments in the abuse crisis, the announcement of a undeservedly short-lived experiment with the Extraordinary Form in the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, the first signs that all is not well in Belgium, but also three new auxiliary bishops for the Archdiocese of Malines-Brussels, and the vacancy of Berlin.

March brought us disturbing news about Bishop Cor Schilder, an extensive message for Lent from the Dutch bishops, disaster in Japan, the announcement of a great ecumenical media project for Easter, and the annual Stille Omgang in Amsterdam.

April: the month of the consecration of Bishops Kockerols, Lemmens and Hudsyn, the first EF Mass in Groningen’s cathedral, further attempts at repressing religious freedom in the Netherlands, the bishops of Belgium uniting in shock to further improprieties from Roger Vangheluwe, the pope’s birthday, further personal attacks against Archbishop Eijk and the first preparations for Madrid.

In May we saw and read about the death of Bin Laden, the beatification of John Paul II, the first Vatican blogmeet, the appointment of Bishop van den Hende to Rotterdam, the publication of Universae Ecclesiae, a prayer answered, a papal visit to Venice, enraging comments from the Salesian superior in the Netherlands, and subsequent press releases from the Salesian Order.

June was the month of papal comments about new evangelisation and sacred music, the end of EF Masses in Groningen, the pope visiting Croatia, a new bishop in Görlitz, Bishop van Luyn’s farewell to Rotterdam, advice on financial compensation for abuse victims, Archbishop Eijk taking over as president of the Dutch bishops’ conference, and the death of Cardinal Sterzinsky.

In July, Bishop Rainer Woelki went to Berlin, there was more preparation for Madrid, Bishop van den Hende was installed as bishop of Rotterdam, the pope visited San Marino, Luxembourg received a new archbishop, Bootcamp 2011 took place, Bishop Liesen appeared on EWTN, Blessed Titus Brandsma ended his Twitter adventure, and the crimes of Anders Breivik hit home for Dutch Catholics.

August was a big month because of the World Youth Days in Madrid, but we also learned about Archbishop Dolan’s explanation of the Vatican, freedom of conscience being curtailed, the 100,000th visitor of this blog, and the Liempde affair exploding in the media.

In September, the official website of the Dutch Church got a make-over, Archbishop Eijk wrote a thankyou note to the participants of the WYD, The Dutch bishops’ conference shuffled their responsibilities, and Pope Benedict visited Germany and delivered an important address to the Bundestag.

October, then, saw a successful reunion of the WYD troupe, Bishop Mutsaerts’ intervention in the ultra-liberal San Salvator parish, the bishops declining a proposal to Protestantise the Church, the consecration of Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, the publication of Porta Fidei and the announcement of a Year of Faith, the appointment of a new Dutch ambassador to the Holy See, the appointment of Msgr. Hendriks as auxiliary bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam, the first Night of Mary, and Assisi 2011.

In November, Cardinal Burke came to Amsterdam, the bishops accept and put into action a plan for financial compensation for victims of sexual abuse, the Peijnenburg affair made headlines, the pope went to Benin and heartwarmingly spoke to children, priests in Belgium tempted excommunication, Cardinal Simonis turned 80, Bishop Liesen became the new bishop of Breda, and a fifty-year-old letter showed that congregations new about abuse happening in their ranks.

This final month of December, then, saw the first fifty victims of sexual abuse being able to claim financial compensation, the presentation of plans for Metropolis 2012, Nuncio Bacqué’s retirement, the consecration of Bishop Jan Hendriks, pain and horror in Liège, the appointment of Archbishop André Dupuy as new Nuncio, and the publication of the Deetman report unleashing emotional reactions everywhere.

It’s been quite the year, but one with much to be thankful for. The truth sets us free seems especially apt in this final month, but can be applied to the entire year. May 2012 be equally open, honest, but also full of blessings for the Church, the people and everyone of us.

Thank you, readers, for the continued interest. That’s incentive to keep on doing what I do here.

A happy new year, and may God bless you all.


Something is very rotten among the Dutch Salesians

I wonder if I should even be surprised anymore… A man plays down the seriousness of sexual relations between an adult and a child, and is subsequently arrested for possessing child pornography. And then it becomes clear that this is his second arrest in five years for the same crime; he just didn’t think it necessary to inform anyone of his first arrest (unless his superiors knew things we didn’t, and that would no longer surprise me either).

The man is the former delegate for the Dutch Salesians Herman Spronck. I say former, because he kept the honour to himself and stepped down (notice it took him a few months of lying to reach that decision). His superior, Fr. Jos Claes of the Salesian province of Flanders and the Netherlands, immediately sent his case on to Rome, where I hope and assume, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and not the Salesian order, will take a good hard look at it.

A terse notice on the website of the Dutch Salesians says as much:

This afternoon we were informed that Fr. H. S. is accused of possessing child pornography, something for which he had been accused before.

We immediately informed our superiors in Rome about this.

This painful news is a surprise to the Salesians. We were completely unaware of this.

The measures surrounding his work, which had been previously published, remain in effect.

We hope that Dutch Justice will do continue to do its work. We Salesians wish to cooperate fully.

The amount of child pornography in Spronck’s possession may have been quite small, but in combination with the lies and the fact that this man had been a contact in discussions between victims of sexual abuse and Church authorities makes it truly despicable. Victims had placed their trust in Spronck, hoping that he would be able to help them get compensated for the pain inflicted upon them. And then he is basically just as bad as the people who abused them.

I also hope that this triggers all religious orders and congregations to stop being naive and unaware of what goes on within their own ranks. I think it’s now necessary to run background checks on every person they employ. This destroys all the goodwill the orders and the Church as a whole gains through their good works. One liar and one order which has little idea of what its member do or did.

Stats for May 2011

With a total 5,940 page views, the month of May has, at the last minute, been able to continue to steady increase visible over the past couple of months. It is now in second place on the list of most visitors on the blog per month. In total views, we’re approaching the 90,000, so I expect that the 100,000 will be crossed sometime in August, 1 year and 8 months after I started this blog. A nice number, but of course nothing to Fr. Tim Finigan’s 3 million visitors since he began blogging. Although he has been at it since April of 2006.

On to the usual top 10 of most popular blog posts. There are three Dutch translations in there (which makes me happy), and the posts about the Dutch Salesians also rank high. Blessed John Paul II’s beatification is also in there, although not as high as I would have expected. Lastly, the new bishop of Rotterdam also led to some decent interest in my writings.

1: An angry post: 166
2: Statement from Vatican press chief Fr. Lombardi on the death of Bin Laden: 107
3: Universae Ecclesiae: 95
4: A prayer answered: 63
5: Het probleem Medjugorje: 62
6: Three press releases from the Salesians 59
7: Fifth bishop of Rotterdam to be announced at noon tomorrow: 57
8: Homilie bij de zaligverklaring van Paus Johannes Paulus II: 56
9: Bishop van den Hende to Rotterdam: 53
10: Pictures say more: 43

It’s raining statements

In a seeming attempt to put right what went wrong, the Salesians in the Netherlands and abroad are trying to be as open as possible about the process of dealing with the membership of a Dutch Salesian of a pedophilia group and the statements of delegate Fr. Herman Spronck, who came out in favour of pedophilia and defended Fr. van B.’s work for the group ‘Martijn’. Yesterday, two more press releases were published, the first from the Salesian Congregation in Rome, titled Paedophilia: Incompatible with the principles and values of Salesian tradition. The heart of that statement is the following paragraph:

“Being a member of such an association is absolutely incompatible with the principles and values of Salesian tradition. Therefore we strongly disapprove of this fact and we distance ourselves from this kind of personal behaviour by an individual confrere. We can understand that this news has undoubtedly once again seriously wounded the justified sensitivities of many persons. We can understand their pain and we offer our apologies in the name of the Salesians of Don Bosco.”

But do read the full text.

The second press release concerns Fr. Spronck himself:

In a conversation, Jos Claes, Provincial of the Province of the Salesians of Don Bosco in Flanders and the Netherlands, has ordered Father Herman Spronck to refrain from giving any interviews or public statements for one year.

Father Herman Spronck has accepted this decision and has promised to keep to it.

Father Herman Spronck acknowledges that his statements represent an incorrect vision and offers his apologies to the many people who felt angered and distraught by the interview.

He disassociates himself from the contents of his interview, which is fully contrary to the teachings of the Church and incompatible with the Christian and Salesian project of education.

Fr. Jos Claes

What was missing in the interview is now finally present in this statement; the fact that, as a Catholic priest, Fr. Spronck made statements that are incompatible with the Christian faith and the teachings of the Church. Better late than never, I would say.

Certain questions and rumours still remain. What, for example, do we make of the claim that Fr. Jos Claes was aware of the membership of Fr. van B. of ‘Martijn’ well before this whole issue broke? I have no sources for that claim apart from rumours being floated here and there. In Rome and the Netherlands, the investigation will continue. I don’t think this is a closed case just yet.

One more time, a press release

I’m getting a bit sick of the whole sordid affair, but for the sake of completeness: one more press release from Salesian Provincial Fr. Jos Claes. Source is the same as in my previous post.

Regarding the most recent revelations from Father van B. and Father Herman Spronck, the Province and the Salesian Congregation completely disassociate themselves from the acts and comments given by both.

Father van B. was officially informed that he has no access to the performance of any pastoral activity whatsoever.

The Provincial of Belgium and the Netherlands, Jos Claes, has suspended Father Herman Spronck from all delegated authority that Father Herman Spronck had regarding the Salesians in the Netherlands.

Compliments to the exceedingly quick response from the responsible authorities. Let’s hope that the committee established will equally soon have a report ready to send on to Rome.

Three press releases from the Salesians

On their website, the Dutch Salesians have released three press statements, two from the hand of Fr. Jos Claes, the order’s provincial for the Netherlands and Flanders, and one from the chairman of Don Bosco Works Netherlands. All regard the membership of one of the Salesian fathers of the pro-pedophilia group ‘Martijn’ as well as the statements made by delegate Fr. Herman Spronck.

Since the interest in the topic is high, judging from my blog’s statistics, I’ll share both press statements in English below.

Press release from the provincial of the Salesian of Don Bosco

Following the news and notification of the comments by Father H. Spronck about Father van B., we distance ourselves completely from the comments by Father H. Spronck.

To our great surprise we were made aware in the past days that Father van B. was a member of the association ‘Martijn’. The membership and visions of such an association are not compatible with our Salesian identity and the educational project of the Salesians of Don Bosco.

We absolutely do not approve of this and we therefore condemn the membership and the opinions of Father van B.

Brussels, 21 May 2011
Jos Claes

Press release from the provincial of the Salesian of Don Bosco

Concerning the case of Father van B. the Provincial has established a committee. Starting today, this will be collecting all the information regarding the actions and words of Father van B. which is connected to his condemnable membership of ‘Martijn’.

The committee’s report will be sent to the superiors of the Salesian congregation in Rome.

At this moment the provincial has officially informed Father van B. that he can not undertake any pastoral duty or service anywhere or in whatever way.

Brussels, 23 May 2011
Jos Claes

Statement from the Foundation Don Bosco Works Netherlands

On Friday evening the council of the Don Bosco Works Netherlands was surprised by the news from RTL 4 about one of the Salesians of Don Bosco and especially the comments which delegate Mr. German Spronck gave via RTL 4.

The council of the Don Bosco Works Netherlands would hereby like to inform you that it expressly distances itself from the comments made by Mr. Herman Spronck in this regard. In the meantime, there has been deliberation with Mr. Jos Claes, Provincial.

The council of the Don Bosco Works Netherlands now reflects on the situations and will further inform you.

Foundation Don Bosco Works Netherlands
Lex Enklaar, chairman
23 May 2011

Three statements which illustrate the shocking nature of the comments made and the effect upon the Salesians and all who work with them. It is good to see that steps are being taken and that Rome will be involved, like a spokesman of the Dutch bishops said a few days ago.

In the meantime, it must be emphasised that Fr. Spronck and Fr. van B. have not committed any crimes according to the law. However, morally their statements and the membership of a club of pedophiles are very seriously wrong.

An angry post

I am angry. Angry and upset. At the stupidity of one man in particular, pictured to the left, and the 1970’s attitude he displays towards sexuality, children and, yes, abuse.

The man appeared in this blog before. He is Fr. Herman Spronck, the superior of the Salesian of Don Bosco in the Netherlands. Yesterday, an interview with him was published by RTL. In it, he defends the membership of a Salesian of a pedophile’s club, his incidents of indecent exposure (“not such a serious misdemeanor”) and reveals he thought it enough to urge said man to not break the law. But the real clincher comes later in the interview, when Spronck is asked about his own opinions of sexuality and sexual contact with minors. My thoughts in red.

What is your own opinion about sexual relations between adults and children. Should these be allowed?

There are of course certain social norms to which everyone should keep. But you can wonder if those do not go too far. Formally  [only formally, because it is expected of you?] I always say that everyone should keep to the law . But such relations need not necessarily be harmful.

You think that relations between adults and children are not necessarily harmful?

I have an example of that. I was once approached by a 14-year-old boy who had a relationship with an older religious brother. That was no longer allowed and the boy was really troubled by that, he was even harmed by it. He told, “Fr. Herman, why do you want to forbid that?” Well, what do you say to such a boy? [Since when is a 14-year-old able to discern the right course of action, especially if he has already been abused by an adult? It was up to Spronck, as it is up to all adults, to protect children, sometimes also from themselves.]

So, those relations between adults and children should be allowed?

Personally I do not definitively denounce relationships between adults and children. Do you know Foucault? The philosopher. Do you know his writings? No? Perhaps you should read them, especially the introduction to Part 4 [I’m not familiar with Foucault. Anyone willing to share some thoughts about said introduction?]. It does depend on the child. We shouldn’t consider age so rigidly. You should never break into the personal space of a child if the child does not want that, but that has to do with the child itself. There are also children who themselves indicate that it is okay. Sexual contact is then also possible. [Sexual contact with minors is never okay! Children, especially in early puberty, need our guidance, like they need the guidance of parents and teachers. They are not adults yet, although they often think they are, and should not be treated so.]

He also continues to say that the abuse claims of people who were victims of Salesians in boarding schools are mostly lies, and that it is all very understandable that religious had sex with minors.

I am angry. I am disgusted. And I wonder if this man is going to get away with all this. I certainly do not hope so.

Saint Don Bosco, pray for all the victims of sexual abuse, especially committed by men who claim to follow your rule. Do not keep from them the relief of pain, and the understanding and recompense that is their day. Also pray for a change of heart in the people who continue to defend and promote these crimes, which touch upon the very heart of children entrusted to the care of adults. Hear my prayer.

Bishops, Nuncio, Conference of Dutch Religious, the ball is in your court now.

Right and left hands

Once more, a fact-finding legal investigation into a clerical abuse case shows how stunningly underdeveloped the communication between Church bodies has been and – for all we know – still is. In the southwest Dutch town of Middelburg, Bishop Hans van den Hende of Breda and Father Herman Spronck, provincial of the Dutch Salesians have been heard this week about an abuse case involving a Salesian priest who was employed as a parish priest by the Diocese of Breda in the 1980s and was convicted of sexual abuse of minors in 1990. It later transpired that he had been guilty of abuse before coming to work in Breda. The ordinary at the time, Bishop Huub Ernst, immediately fired the priest when his history became known.

Fr. Spronck has explained in a letter to the court that the Salesians never bothered to inform the diocesan curia of Breda about the priest’s past. The letter also makes clear that the priest fell under the jurisdiction of the Salesians and not the diocese, which is the core of the case that the victim tries to build: who can be held responsible for the priest’s crimes?

The Salesian letter says “that, at the time of the appointment of Mr. N. to Terneuzen, they did not communicate at all with the diocese about the history of Mr. N. This happened neither before or over the course of the appointment.” Fr. Spronck also said that the Diocese of Breda should have investigated the priest they appointed themselves as well.

Bishop van den Hende declared before the court that the diocesan archives contain nothing but the appointment and dismissal letters of the priest in question. All that the bishop knows about the case is second-hand, which makes sense, since he was only appointed to Breda in 2006.

I don’t think this is what Christ meant when he said, “Let not your left hand know what your right hand does” (Matt. 6:3).

Serious questions about the guilt of Msgr. Ter Schure

A day after the news broke (or rather, was regurgitated) that former bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Msgr. Jan Ter Schure, had been one of seven Salesians who abused a boy in the late 1940s, serious questions about the truth behind the matter appear. Current provincial Herman Spronck gave a radio interview today in which he claimed that, during the time of the abuse, then-seminarian Ter Schure had been in Italy for his education:

“We have concluded that Jan Ter Schure was not yet a priest between 1947 and 1951. He was studying theology in Italy at that time. After his ordination in 1951 he was immediately put to work in The Hague. He was therefore not a regular brother at Ugchelen. He would have visited from time to time, but under what circumstances is not known.”

Fr. Herman Spronck

Spronck also raised another important issue regarding this case. He claims that the whole affair had been settled out of court in 2003, and that everything was kept quiet on the express request of the victim.

“That is very odd to me. For seven years he has said that he did not want [the story to become public]. In 2003 everything had been peacefully settled. There would be no more talk about it. We were convinced that we settled matters just fine, in a human and humane way.”

About the 16,000-guilder compensation paid to the victim, Fr. Spronck says: “That was a reparation to the victim, together with apologies. He granted us a final remission, which means that he would not undertake any further actions, neither to the press, nor to others.”

Whatever the truth, perhaps the above goes to show that keeping things quiet, something that is time and again claimed of the Church, is rarely the right solution. The truth will come out eventually, but what the truth is, remains to be seen in this case.

If Jan Ter Schure spent his seminary years in Italy he could hardly have been one of seven regular abusers at the boarding school Don Rua at Ugchelen. But what does the reparation paid in 2003 mean? Did the Salesians conclude that something untoward involving the future bishop had indeed happened? Was there an investigation, were people named?

Many questions remain, including some about the conduct of media and victim. After all, in our legal system, no one can be punished twice for the same crime, so why regurgitate something that had seemingly been settled, albeit out of court?