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.”

The cardinal’s address

Also released yesterday, the full text of Cardinal Eijk’s address to Pope Francis at the start of the meeting of the bishops with the Holy Father on Monday. As reported earlier by several bishops, the talk is mainly a summary of the general report for the ad limina, and does not contain much we don’t know already. As an introduction, though, it suffices, and for the sake of completeness I share my translation below.

bishops with pope francis

Holy Father,

We, the Dutch bishops, have looked forward eagerly to this personal meeting with you, the current vicar of Christ on earth, and we consider it the high point of our ad limina visit, after the Masses at the graves of the Apostles Peter and Paul and in the Basilicas of St. John Lateran and of St. Mary Major. For the major part of the Dutch bishops this will be their first meeting with you, which adds a special tone to this moment.

The ad limina visit is in the first place a pilgrimage to the graves of the Apostles here in Rome and the personal meeting with you. It is also a chance to report on the religious, cultural, social and pastoral developments and some problems and special questions regarding our Church province. About all of this we have sent you a report from our Conference which, except for the report of each diocesan bishop, has also been published. In the general report we want to paint a clear and honest picture of the current situation in our Church province and we say clear-cut that it is not in every aspect optimistic.

The number of Catholics in the Netherlands continues to decrease rapidly. This mostly concerns the number of practising Catholics, which means that the number of financial means available is decreasing rapidly. Since the Church in the Netherlands is not subsidised by the state, she depends on voluntary donations from the faithful. Although these are very generous towards the Church, they are unable to collect sufficient financial means to maintain their parish churches. We expect that one third of the Catholic churches in our country will have to be closed by 2020 and two-thirds before 2025. In recent years the Dutch dioceses were forced, for the same reason, to reorganise their curia and let employees go. In the case of the Archdiocese of Utrecht, this was also necessary to avoid bankruptcy.

As in other countries, the Church in the Netherlands also has to deal with the problem of sexual abuse of minors by workers in the Church. The Dutch Bishops’ Conference and the Conference of Dutch Religious closely cooperated in having this issue investigated by an independent committee, with an institution were such cases can be reported, a commission to investigate them, a committee for recompense and a platform for psychological support of the victims. We are determined to recognise the problems of the victims, compensate the damage done and help them heal as much as possible. Regular meetings between the chairmen of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference, the Conference of Dutch religious and a top down organisation of victims has led to increased mutual confidence. Together they determined the final date of 1 July 2014 for the reporting of sexual abuse by deceased person and abuse that is under the statute of limitations. We urge everyone to present evidence, insofar as it can support the claims of victims, and help them report the claims, as far as possible, so that the Church can make a fresh start in this area, in the victims’ interest.

Our report is realistic but not pessimistic. We notice that the practicing Catholics which remain are taking their faith increasingly serious, are more positive towards the Church and have an increasingly close personal relationship with Christ. We hope to be able to maintain a number of churches which can then serve as centres of  communities of faith with a living faith, which is visible in the liturgy, the catechesis of children, youth and adults and diaconal activity, which is so important in our modern society. These faithful will support the Church in the Netherlands and be the leavening of the coming Kingdom of God.

We are very much delighted to be able to meet with you today, and we want to say that we feel deeply united with you. Yu may be assured of our prayer for you, that God may richly bless you for your task to lead the Church in the world in this time. From our side, we ask you to pray for us and grant us your Apostolic Blessing.

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

The investigation, part 2

Following concerns from politicians that the investigation into sexual abuse of minors by clergy in the Catholic Church was somehow incomplete, the Deetman Committee is gearing up for the sequel to last year’s report, which revealed, among other things, that the victims of abuse that occurred between 1945 and today were mainly male. Since that somehow leads to the conclusion that women were underrepresented in the conclusions of the Committee, they will now be focussing on the physical and psychological, as well as sexual, abuse that women and girls suffered from caregivers in Catholic boarding schools, orphanages and other institutions.

Like the previous investigation, this one will be mainly scientific, intended to give a general impression of the problem, both within the Church and society as a whole. Preliminary work will be undertaken over the next few weeks, and the intention voiced by Mr. Deetman is to have the investigation completed before the end of autumn. Female victims of abuse can relay information via reactie@onderzoekrk.nl until 1 July. The Meldpunt Misbruik RKK continues handling official complaints and compensation as well, while victims’ organisation KLOKK facilitates contacts between victims.

In the course of June, the proposed means of investigation will be published at http://onderzoekrk.nl/.

“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.

Still learning

Reports in the news today that the bishops are thwarting the handling of abuse cases and that the Church is avoiding responsibility. Victims association KLOKK claims to have received 75 claims of this happening. 75 out of thousands. They also say that Church leader eagerly make use of objecting to complaints deemed well-founded by the special commission. Bishops and superiors are said to use the excuse of not being able to find any evidence of specific abuse cases in their archives.

True or not – and it must be noted that in certain cases evidence will be hard to come by – there still seems to be a gap between victims and Church. This is made worse, it must be said, by the seemingly adversarial attitude of associations such as KLOKK. Are they perhaps becoming more like obstacles now that the abuse has been acknowledged and revealed to the world? Maybe more can be gained in direct personal contact between victims, bishops and superiors, meetings that several bishops have already had, since well before the publication of the Deetman report.

Just some idle thoughts. But be that as it may, I think we can all agree that the Church must continue to learn to deal with this crisis and, most importantly, to unwaveringly be there for the victims.

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.