Four bishops look back – the ad limina in hindsight

Four bishops have written their thoughts and feelings about last week’s ad limina visit down and shared the resulting texts on the websites of their respective dioceses. Here, in full, are my translations, reflecting the encouragement that the bishops took home from their encounter with Pope Francis and the offices of the Curia.

mgr_de_Korte3Bishop Gerard de Korte, bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden:

“What did the ad limina visit bring me as bishop of the North? I think in the first place encouragement. Our report included many statistics which cause concern. The Church, after all, continues to shrink. But the Pope and also his coworkers in the various Congregations and Pontifical Council continuously warned the bishops against a sterile pessimism. The message was always: be patient, make contact, try to connect, don’t write anyone off, don’t blow up any bridges. Every bishop should after all be a ‘pontifex’, a bridge builder. I saw these words as a confirmation of my policy. In a recent article on the future of Roman Catholicism I summarised that policy in two words: clear and cordial. The Church of tomorrow can only thrive when she stays close to Jesus. God’s unconditional love and forgiveness in Jesus for every person and our entire world should be at the heart. God’s mercy should also make us merciful and mild in how we deal with one another.

At the same time that should happen in a heartfelt and inviting way. Not with a pointing finger or a frown, but with an open attitude and a smile. There are many stalls in the modern religious market. For religious searchers the choice for Christ and His Church is not always the obvious one. For many of our contemporaries, faith is a search, a process. Parishes and church communities are called to increasingly initiate people in the treasure of Christian tradition and bring them to Christ, step by step. For ultimately every person is called to live his or her life out of the friendship with the living Christ.

Encouraged by the ad limina visit I continue my work as bishop. In turn, I hope to be able to encourage Catholics and other Christians to live the life of their Baptism. Pope Francis continuously asks us to be brave and to live out of hope. Let us grab the plough, out of the joy of the Gospel!”

staatsieportret20kardinaal20eijkWim Cardinal Eijk, archbishop of Utrecht:

“The preparations for the ad limina visit of the Dutch bishops were preceded by numerous speculations. What would the new Pope Francis think of the Dutch bishops? Wouldn’t they be strongly chastised for their policies? In that context, many think of the mergers of parishes and the closing of churches, which the bishops would be deciding upon out of ideological motives and because of a shortage of priests. What was striking was that the approach of sexual abuse by Church workers was now getting less attention.

In my article for the November issue of the diocesan magazine Op Tocht, which was also spread to the parishes as a letter, I discussed in detail the painful necessity of parish mergers and church closings in several locations. The archdiocese does not take the initiative to close a church. That is in the first place the responsibility of the parish councils, which then request the archbishop to remove a church from service. But in the end neither the archbishop nor the parish council make the decision, but the people who decide to no longer take part in worship and no longer support the Church financially.

In the 1950s ninety percent of the Catholics attended Church on Sunday. Today that is five percent and that percentage is still dropping. Anyone can see that church closings then become unavoidable. The same goes for parish mergers. Parishes which can no longer survive alone, can join forces with other parishes and form a new thriving faith community. We must now take our responsibility for the future. Our children who still believe must have the opportunity to celebrate and share the faith. It would be irresponsible to try and maintain everything we have now and use up all available means doing so, leaving future generations empty-handed.

The Pope understands this, and so does the Roman Curia. In other parts of the world, for example in the United States, the need for parish mergers and church closings becomes apparent. Between 2000 and 2011, 121 churches in the Diocese of Essen, Germany, were removed from use and closed.

Many other topics were also discussed. The Pope and his coworkers received, for example, detailed information from the Dutch bishops about the situation around the sexual abuse of minors. In the last months, fruitful cooperation has come into being between the chairmen of the Bishops’ Conference, the KNR (Conference of Dutch religious) and KLOKK, the major umbrella organisation for victims of sexual abuse. They jointly established a final date of 1 July 2014 for the reporting of claims of sexual abuse concerning deceased perpetrator and cases of sexual abuse that fall under the statute of limitations. Said chairmen also presented a joint report to Secretary Opstelten on 5 November of this year, the so-called base-measurement, in which the implementations of the recommendations of the Deetman Commission of 2011 were investigated. The report includes a number of solid pieces of advice to improve the approach to claims of sexual abuse. The Bishops’ Conference, the KNR, KLOKK, and the management and overview foundation for sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands have enthusiastically begun implementing this advice. The base-measurement was translated into English and sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The Dutch bishops and the KNR coupled the announcement of the final date with a call to all to supply supportive evidence for claims of sexual abuse where possible. We also called all to – contrary what sadly sometimes occurs elsewhere – not oppose victims in any way when they make a claim, or blame them for it, but support hem as much as possible. They suffered enough under the sexual abuse. We called all to help the Church clean her slate in the interest of the victims. The Pope encouraged us to continue on this road. At the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith we were also told that we chose a “good direction”.

The way in which Pope Francis replied to the Dutch bishops’ policies was heartwarming for them. He was visibly moved by the difficulties we face. His biggest fear was that we would become discouraged because of the problems we are struggling with, and that we would succumb to feelings of sorrow. He impressed upon us not lose hope, hope in the promises of Christ: “This hope never disappoints.” The message which he repeatedly drew our attention too was, “Do not look back, try not to keep what you once had, but look ahead.” A word that he continuously repeated was, “avanti, avanti, sempre avanti.” Keep going forward than do not look back at the past. In the past the Church may have had great buildings and structures, but we live in the present. In the present, you must take your responsibility.

As Dutch bishops we feel very much confirmed and encouraged by the Pope and his coworkers to go “avanti”, that is to say, forward on the path we are on. What we take with us from this very successful ad limina visit is that we should not Always look back nostalgically to a rich past, but that we must go “avanti”, forward, with our task to proclaim Christ and His Gospel. We must now take our responsibility and take the necessary measures, even if they are not always popular, to make sure that there are enough means and opportunities to also in the future proclaim the faith in Dutch society. If we don’t do anything now and maintain everything, we take away from our children the means to share the Gospel and celebrate the faith.

For the bishops it was also a special experience to be together for an entire week in Rome. In addition to unity with the world Church, the ad limina visit has also strengthened our mutual unity. Many concrete questions from the bishops have been answered by workers in the Roman Curia. We will get to work with the advice we received, in courage and enthusiasm.

The ad limina visit was closed with a celebration of the Eucharist at St. Mary Major. Here, at the end of the celebration, we answered Pope Francis’ call to us in the address he gave us in writing at Monday’s audience, to dedicate our Church province to Mary. This we did, and we confirmed it by praying the Hail Mary together. We asked Mary to pray for us to God to make our beautiful ad limina visit fruitful for the proclamation of the Catholic faith in the Netherlands.”

hoogenboomBishop Theodorus Hoogenboom, auxiliary bishop of Utrecht:

“What is the homework that Pope Francis gave the Dutch bishops during the ad limina visit?” I was asked in the preliminary conversation before a radio interview… My answer was that an ad limina visit, since its establishment in the 16th century, is first and foremost a pilgrimage of the bishops to the graves of the Apostles Peter and Paul. And that is how I look back on it as well: the ad limina visit was a precious week in which we, the Dutch bishops, prayed in the four great basilicas (St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls), in the Church of the Frisians and in the Santa Maria dell’Anima (where Pope Adrian VI, from Utrecht, lies buried). The fact that, on 2 December, we could first celebrate Holy Mass at the tomb of Saint Peter in the catacombs and shortly afterwards meet the personal successor of this Apostle on the see of Peter, Pope Francis, was for me without doubt the high point of our ad limina visit.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus calls the Apostle Peter to strengthen his brothers, the other Apostles, in their faith. And that is exactly what Pope Francis did towards us as Dutch bishops. Aware of the situation in which the Dutch Roman Catholic Church finds herself, the Pope directed words of hope and encouragement to the bishops and all Roman Catholics in our country. In the ‘group talk’ with the Pope I could ask him, referring to Jesus who washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper (John 13), how he sees the relation between liturgy, especially the Eucharist, and diakonia. Pope Francis’ answer was that the worship of God and the service to the neighbour, especially the neighbour in need, are inextricably entwined. He also mentioned practical examples from the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires where he was archbishop. We can mirror the practical examples from our archdiocese to that; for example the food collection for the Food bank during the Chrism Mass in Apeldoorn.

That we could start the ad limina visit with a fraternal meeting with Pope Francis, despite original plans,  is to me a gift from God’s providence. During our visits to the Congregations and Pontifical Councils we reported on the developments in the Dutch Church province since the last ad limina visit in 2004. But on those occasions we also looked ahead, and time and again we heard words which referred to the joy of the Gospel, to Christian joy and the trust in God about which Pope Francis had earlier spoken with us so warmly and inspirational. A joyful message which I continue to carry with me in my life and works as auxiliary bishop of Utrecht. It was not about getting homework assigned and which you reluctantly start, but about confirmation and encouragement in performing a joyful duty for life.”

woortsBishop Herman Woorts, auxiliary bishop of Utrecht:

We continue encouraged, with hope and joy, amid the concerns and responsibilities. The Pope and the Curia, people with their inspiration, it has all come much nearer for me. I am grateful for having experienced this and also grateful that we are part of that one world Church, led by the Pope, above all of the Holy Spirit, accompanied by Mary, Peter and Paul and all those other saints and blesseds. It has strengthened me, not least the daily Masses and prayer and sympathy of many at home. That does good.

What will also stay with me: when we left the room after the conversation with the Pope, I spoke with him about the contact with rabbis and Jewish organisations. He squeezed my arm and indicated: continue with that. He was happy about it.”

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Sexual abuse – the double standards of the state

About a year ago, as the extent of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church over the past sixty years or so became clear, there were many voices calling for the Church, in the persons of the bishops, to publicly apologise for the crimes committed. For even though many of the abuse cases happened in the past, the current bishops continue in the responsible role of their predecessors. On multiple occasions, the bishops did so, publicly and in private meetings with victims. It was also hoped that the Catholic response to the crisis would be an example to other parts of society, because it was already clear that sexual abuse is not an exclusively Catholic problem. On the contrary.

At the same time that the Deetman Commission was investigating the Church, another commission, headed by former attorney general Rieke Samson, was doing the same for children who were entrusted to the care of the state. This commission recently published its conclusions, and the numbers were even more staggering than the ones revealed by the Deetman Commission.

In the case of the Catholic cases, there were debates in parliament, and calls from politicians that the Church needed to take responsibility. Rightly so.

But now the ball is in the state’s court. And today we find that that state has no intention of apologising. They have sympathy for the victims, Secretary of Security and Justice Ivo Opstelten said today, but that, it seems, is as far as it goes.

Taking responsibility and taking care of the victims, not to mention punishing the perpetrators, is apparently not something that the state, represented by parliament, considers applicable to itself. When it happened in the Church, calls for resignations and criminal trials were called for. Now that the state carries the same level of responsibility for what happened in state-owned shelters and orphanages as the bishops did for the sexual abuse in the Church, none of that applies. Even public apologies are too much to ask for.

“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.

We’re not done yet

In fact, the problem may only be getting bigger in the immediate future.

After a plenary debate in Parliament yesterday, Justice secretary Ivo Opstelten will be asking the Church to look into what happened to young women and girls in the care of the Church. This after the investigation of the Deetman commission revealed the majority of abuse victims to have been male, Katholiek Nieuwsblad reports. Physical and psychological violence should now also be investigated, as well as the issue of babies put up for adoption on the insistence of Church workers.

Secretary Opstelten is said to be planning to ask Mr. Wim Deetman to also look into these new topics, which were not part of the initial investigation, as it focussed exclusively on sexual abuse of minors. Archbishop Eijk, in a meeting with Parliament members two weeks ago, said that bishops and religious superiros had spoken about including physical and psychological violence in the assignment given to the Deetman commission, but decided against it because of the difficulty of defining violence.

The Deetman commission itself, per its final report, is hesitant about the usefulness of such an investigation, and has emphasised the importance of investigating such forms of abuse, together with sexual abuse, child pornography, child prostitution and people trafficking as a social problem. The Samson commission is investigating the plight of children placed under the care of the government between 1973 and today, and has received 600 claims already. Mr. Deetman suggested awaiting the result of that investigation.

I tend to agree with Deetman’s suggestion. Why have two investigations into roughly the same issue, and why take a small sampling of society to get a big picture? After all, physical abuse took place in our society, not just the Church. Solving the problem in the Church does not solve it in schools, clubs and families. We must not bury our heads and the sand and pretend society as a whole knows no problems, that it is only the Church which does things wrong. Look at the whole picture, not just one or two details. By all means, the Church must look hard at her recent past and do what can be done to set things straight, but she by no means the only one who must do so.

Photo credit: Tweedekamer.nl

The archbishop in parliament

In an unprecedented hearing yesterday, Archbishop Wim Eijk spoke to politicians about the abuse crisis and the work that is being done by the Church in the wake of the Deetman report. It seems that even now, there are things we can learn, most specifically from Belgium: there new raids of diocesan offices took place, whereas over here the Church seems to try and work with the state to find solutions. Or the state with the Church, for that matter.

Yesterday’s hearing came after a letter from Justice secretary Ivo Opstelten, which explained that abusers whose crime fall under the state of limitations, since they took place decades ago, can not now be prosecuted after all. Which, as victims’ organisations pointed out, does not mean the Church can’t take steps against these people. The Church, after all, has a readily waived statute of limitations for these crimes.

The Church remains committed to eradicating sexual abuse “root and branch”, the archbishop said. But, it must be acknowledged, she is still finding its feet in these matters. After many years of trying to resolve the situation internally, the Church in the Netherlands and all over the world is learning to work publicly and with other institutions. The Vatican seems to be starting to coordinate and direct how individual bishops’ conferences and religious congregations work for and with victims and against sexual abuse, for example.

Back home, the archbishop revealed that a special contact group between bishops and victims will be created to further communication between the two. We’ve seen the first steps in Archbishop Eijk’s meeting with victims on Sunday. An important role in this group will be played by Rotterdam’s Bishop Hans van den Hende (right), who is a good choice for such sensitive and pastoral work.

Photo credit: [1] Trouw

Anti-life proposals questioned by its ‘target audience’

There is a silent but dangerous initiative going on in Dutch politics. Two groups – the ‘Out of Free Will’ Foundation and the Dutch Society for the Voluntary Termination of Life – are attempting to propose laws to government that would prepare the way for special end-of-life clinics, where ‘patients’ are provided with euthanasia, as well as the lifting of regulations on euthanasia in general for people over 70. Facilitating in death is the start of a very slippery slope, especially when death becomes a standard resolution for someone reaching a specific age.

Logo of the Catholic Elderly Union

Ironically, two unions, the Protestant-Christian Elderly Union and the Catholic Elderly Union, representing the ‘targets’  for these new measures, are now speaking against this. They have written a letter to Secretary of Security and Justice Ivo Opstelten and Health secretary Edith Schipper, warning against this development.

The unions say that the 116,000 signatures that the initiative has gathered are more than a “yes, we are in favour”. It is also a “no against getting old and dependent”. The unions acknowledge that getting older and the approaching end of life triggers emotions of fear and insecurity, and often elderly wonder why they should go on. These emotions and thoughts require that the people in question feel safe in their environment and with their possible caregivers.

The unions conclude their letter with an earnest outcry to the secretaries who are today receiving the ‘Out of Free Will’ Foundation and the Dutch Society for the Voluntary Termination of Life:

It is unacceptable that questions about a full life come from a shortage of dedication and attention from others. Elderly people with a full life must be heard, but thy also deserve someone saying: “Stay with us, you are worth it!”

PCOB and the Union KBO consider the answers from the initiators ‘Out of Free Will’ and NVVR – who plead for an end-of-life clinic – far too blunt. They think that the issue of elderly who consider their life fulfilled is an existential issue. It requires a broad approach and reflection by society.

The original letter can be read in Dutch here.

Surely, such developments as suggested by these anti-life groups are a sign of the moral bankruptcy of this country? This is not a matter of caring for the elderly, it is opting for the easy way out.