In De Kesel vs the Fraternity, a few small specks of light

de keselIn the two weeks since the blunt announcement that the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels would be discontinuing all its relations with the Fraternity of the Holy Apostle, there has been much silence from said archdiocese. This despite the debate that erupted about the topic, in which commenters were almost unanimously opposed to the decision.

But despite a lack of official and public comments, Archbishop Jozef De Kesel has met with a delegation of laity, and from this some developments have emerged, Katholiek Nieuwsblad and La Libre Belgique report. Sadly, the decision of cutting all ties with the Fraternity remains, but the archbishop has had to accept a setback: dozens of people have appealed the decision, forcing at least a month’s respite. Originally, the archdiocese had announced to sever all ties by the end of June, in other words: today.

There was more positive news in the meeting: the priests attached to the church of St. Catherine can remain there while Archbishop De Kesel is in office (and, one would hope, after that). On the other hand, the archbishop is also open to another diocese, in Belgium or abroad, taking on canonical responsibility for the Fraternity. How likely that is, considering that his decision was apparently made in full agreement with the other Belgian bishops and Rome, remains anyone’s guess.

The 200-strong parish of Saint Catherine’s has extended an invitation to Archbishop De Kesel to come and visit, an invitation he has promised to accept once the storm has died down.

Bishop Ernst marks 75 years of priesthood

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He is the nestor of the Dutch episcopate, and at 99 years of age Msgr. Huub Ernst is the 8th oldest bishop in the world today. Last Tuesday he marked the 75th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, with a solemn Mass in the cathedral of St. Anthony* in Breda, the same church were he offered his first Mass in 1941. As the retired bishop of Breda is confined to a motorised wheelchair, he concelebrated the Mass, which was offered by Breda’s current bishop, Msgr. Jan Liesen. They were joined by Bishop Hans van den Hende, bishop of Breda from 2007 to 2011, as well as the current and retired vicars general of the diocese.

Bishop Ernst was one of two priests ordained by Bishop Petrus Hopmans on 7 June 1941. After two years working in the parish he was called to a life of study, education and management. He was vicar general under Bishop Gerard de Vet (bishop of Breda from 1962 to 1967) and succeeded him upon his untimely death. Bishop Ernst, considered a progressive (but not so much that the liberal 8 May Movement did not succeed in alienating him) but also a wise and well-spoken theologian, would remain in office until 1992, followed by an uncommonly long two and a half years as apostolic administrator, until Martinus Muskens was appointed as his successor in late 1994.

After his retirement, Bishop Ernst remained available for certain important events. Not only did he consecrate Bishop Muskens in 1994, but he was also one of the co-consecrators of Muskens’ successor, Hans van den Hende, in 2006. Bishop Ernst has lived long enough to see three bishops succeed him and survived his immediate successor. In 2007 he condemned the proposal of the Dominicans to have lay people be given the possibility to offer Mass as “incorrect, senseless and not the right solution”. In 2010 he was called to testify in a sexual abuse case, claiming that important information was withheld from him when he was asked to appoint a Salesian priest who would later abuse again, after which Bishop Ernst fired him.

While Bishop Ernst is one of the oldest living bishops, he is even higher on the list of most senior bishops by ordination to the priesthood. Only four living bishops were ordained before Bishop Ernst, and among them is another bishop from the Dutch language area. He is Belgian-born Bishop Jan Van Cauwelaert. Now at the age of 102, this Antwerp-born prelate of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary was vicar apostolic and later bishop of Inongo, now in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

About his current life, Bishop Ernst said:

“When I had to end my duties because of my age, I experienced that, while possessing a clear mind, I was definitely losing my physical strength. I concluded from that that my task would now be to stand in my own life for what I looked for in the offices. Experiencing this, I said, “Chaplain again, invisibly present. Without this being expressed amid the others who believe. The images I carry with me from my time in the chaplaincy express the relationship in which we live. It is a life of gratitude.””

*It wasn’t the cathedral back then, although it had been between 1853 and 1876, and has been again since 2001.

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

A desperate situation – mother leaves newborn child in ‘foundling room’

For the first time since its establishment in 2014, a so-called ‘foundling room’ run by the Stichting Beschermde Wieg (protected cradle foundation) was used in the city of Groningen last week. The foundation aims to assist mothers who, for whatever reason, can’t take care of their child and do not want, or are afraid or unable to contact official institutions, to safely leave their child in the hands of a volunteer and ultimately a foster family. There are foundling rooms in four cities in the Netherlands. They are small rooms with a bed, chair and information on a wall poster, and the one in Groningen was the first to be used. A volunteer is available within minutes for any assistance the mother may need or want. This volunteer is with the baby soon after the mother has left. After leaving her child, the mother can reclaim her child within six months if she changes her mind or the situation she is in.

The child, which was left behind last Thursday night and whose details remain confidential, has been checked up in a hospital and is now in the care of a foster family. The mother has left her information in a sealed enveloppe in the care of a notary, so that the child, once he or she has reached the age of 16, can know and perhaps contact his or her biological mother.

The foundation’s foundling rooms are illegal under Dutch law, and the police have the matter under investigation. In 2014, when the room was opened, a Groningen city councillor criticised it, stating that all efforts of the city are directed at preventing the abandonment of newborn children. Laudable as that is, the foundation’s website makes it clear that there are cases (usually extremely painful ones) in which a mother is not able to go to a hospital or another official institution to be taken care of, because of psychological issues, abuse or the threat of physical violence to herself or the child. In the Netherlands, some six newborn children are found every year in dumpsters, public toilets, shopping bags or other places. Only two of these six are generally found alive. While foundling rooms are not perfect, they ensure the safety of the child and hopefully also the mother (through the information provided to her there). In many cases in other countries, the foundation claims, this information, and the possibility for personal contact with a volunteer, results in the mother coming back on her decision to leave her child.

In a society where abortion is perceived as just a medical procedure and even a human right, the work of this foundation can only be lauded. Yes, leaving a newborn child is not to be taken lightly. But in situations in which a mother is unable to take care of her child, it is always to be preferred over leaving it somewhere in the cold or, even worse, killing the child through abortion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The problem of secrecy – whose choice is it?

One third of known abuse cases have been settled out of court and in secret, an investigation by Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad reveals. Church authorities, mostly religious congregations, paid out 10.6 million euros in compensation for these 342 cases*.

The foundation the commission advised to be established has now processed 703 cases of sexual abuse by clergy and other representatives of the Church, while some 200 are still awaiting completion. 21.3 million euros in compensation have been paid in acknowledgement of these cases.

Settlement agreements which were agreed upon through a mediator, some 210 in total, included the commitment for both parties not to express themselves negatively about each other where it concerns the settlement or the abuse in question. These settlements were used by a handful of religious congregations which ran schools and boarding schools, among them the Salesians.  While mediation and settlements, in addition or instead of the standard channels of meeting, conversation, acknowledgement and financial compensation, have always been options, the secrecy clause is problematic.

When it comes to how the Church deals with abuse, secrecy should be avoided at all cost. In order to resolve the crisis and acknowledge the sins committed and damage done to the victims, the first step must always be transparancy. Secret settlements are hardly the way to do it.

However, we must also wonder how these came about? Where they suggested by the congregations in question, or was there a wish from the victims to remain anonymous and avoid possible unwanted media attention? If there is a wish for the latter, that must certainly be acknowledged. The victims should have the first say in how their case is handled. So, secret settlements are not automatically a bad thing. As it seems now, however, from comments from the mediators themselves, the secrecy clause was included on the request of the religious congregations themselves, which was not their decision to make.

Were secret settlements out of court the smart thing to do? Probably not, even if there was a wish from the victims to do it like this (which, it seems now, there generally was not). It was not up to the congregations to choose secrecy. When faced with a choice between secrecy and transparency, the first and immediate choice must always be the latter.

Many victims signed the agreement, with the secrecy clause embedded within it, as the end result of professional mediation between them and the congregations in question. Did they all read it carefully? Perhaps not. But their signature did make the agreement legally binding, making it exceedingly difficult for them to now voice their disagreements.

As before, the fear for a tarnished reputation seems to have played its part… But that never leads to a solution, to a future where we can say that sexual abuse by clergy, and it effects in too many innocent victims, lies in the past. The Church can be, and in many ways already is, an example for other parts of society, but not when secrecy remains a part of her actions.

In a press release issued today, the Catholic Church in the Netherlands addressed this issue, once more underlining that mediation and settlement have been options from the beginning (and again, these are not problematic, but secrecy is):

“Complaints against deceased and/or about lapsed cases of sexual abuse could be lodged with the Meldpunt Seksueel Misbruik RKK until 1 May 2015. Claimants could choose to have their case processed by the complaints commissions and speak openly, in the presence of Church representatives, about the sexual abuse they suffered and the consequences of it in their lives. After the claim is deemed justified, victims can request compensation from the compensation commission. In the course of the process victims can also choose an alternative, such as mediation or a settlement.

The Meldpunt Seksueel Misbruik, which falls under the independent Stichting Beheer & Toezicht for cases of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands, will report on the claims processed and the compensations awarded, as well as mediations and settlements, in the annual report over 2015. This report will be completed in the first week of April and will be published on the website of the Meldpunt. The Meldpunt will, as it has done in previous years, communicatie openly and transparently.

The Meldpunt takes the aspect of confidentiality into accounty. In a report from April 2014 the board of Beheer & Toezicht explains why confidentiality in all cases is so important: it lowers the threshold for victims, accused and Church authorities; plausibility is of primary importance in processing the case; the defendants are deceased in most cases and can no longer defend themselves.

The complaints commissions expects that all cases will be completed by 1 September 2016, as the Meldpunt Seksueel Misbruik RKK reported in a press relase of 30 November 2015.”

*The accuracy of these numbers as presented by NRC have been called into question. If the actual number of settlements with a secrecy of clause is smaller than suggested, that can only be good, but it does not remove the need for openness that I emphasise above. Again, settlements out of court and mediation are no need for concern, and the advice of the Deetman Commission specifically acknowledges and supports it (contrary to what the authors of the NRC claim, and which I shared in an earlier version of this blog post). Imposed secrecy by anyone else than the victims is a problem, however.

 

Discordant voice? Confusion about what bishops should do when confronted with abuse

Msgr. Tony Anatrella’s statement – “Bishops are not obliged in all cases to report allegations of sexual abuse to the authorities” – has led to shocked headlines and articles in the media. And it is not hard to see why. Isn’t this exactly what the Catholic Church has done in the past and what it continues to be accused of doing? Keeping the facts hidden to protect her own image? Well, yes and no.

AP3063773_LancioGrandeYes, it is true that image was often the first thing that needed protection, instead of the victims of an abusive priest, or so many in the Church thought and acted upon. And no, this is not really what Msgr. Anatrella, speaking at the regular course for new bishops in the Vatican (a previous meeting pictured), said.

He added something to the above statement: “It is up to the victims and their families to do so”. And that is true: the victim decides what should be done, not in the first place the bishop. If a victim, for example, wishes that no legal proceedings take place (and this has happened), a bishop can (and should) urge for the wisest course of action, but has to abide with the victim’s wishes. This is a consequence of the primary concern that needs to be given to this victim, a concern urged for by Pope Francis, his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and many prelates and bishops’ conferences.

As John Allen points out, Msgr. Anatrella’s speech could have been much better if it did not only focus on canon law and psychotherapy, but also on the interactions between Church and state authorities in these matters: what can and must a bishop do or not do when confronted with such terrible crimes against the dignity of a person? Not just with the means at his disposal as a shepherd in the Church, but also as a person living in a modern society.

And there lies the rub: in our modern western societies (at least most of them) reporting allegations to the police is the surest and safest way to see justice being done. In many countries this is not a given. Police forces and judicial systems are not always just and safe, but corrupt or tainted by political, social and religious ideologies which are not necessarily sympathetic to the Christian churches and faithful.

As Father Lombardi pointed out yesterday, Msgr. Anatrella said nothing new. And the fact that his statements were published as part of the proceedings of the entire course does not mean that there is a new Vatican policy on dealing with sexual abuse. But Msgr. Anatrella could have phrased things differently, emphasised the continuity of his statements with those of the Popes in recent years and suggested that, all things being equal, legal proceedings are a necessity towards justice, as long as the victim desires it.

Affairs like these do muddle the issue and give false impressions of the Church’s resolve to prevent the past from repeating itself. The will is there – as is clear from what Pope Francis and other prelates have said in multiple occasions – but the execution sometimes lacks. However, I do not expect any bishops to have come away from this course with the idea that they don’t have to act when someone approaches them with the terrible news that they have suffered abuse in the one place they should have been nothing but safe.

Photo credit: Vatican Radio

An archbishop’s first tempest

de keselLess then two months in, Archbishop Jozef De Kesel weathered his first true storm these past few days, as his comments about the freedom of Catholic hospitals to refuse performing euthanasia led to strong criticism, even from politicians.

In an interview last Saturday, the archbishop was asked what he thought about freedom of choice in matters of abortion and euthanasia. He answered:

“I can understand that someone with a secular view of life has no problems with it. But it is not evident from my faith. I think I am allowed to say that, and what’s more: I also think that we have the right, on an institutional level, to decide not to do it. I am thinking, for example, of our hospitals. You are not free to choose if there is only one option.”

Critics then accused Archbishop De Kesel of disregarding the law in Belgium and urging others, namely Catholic hospitals, to do the same. But others, among them politicians, lawyers and legal experts, soon countered that no such thing was the case. They pointed out that the law does not create a right to be euthanised or have an abortion performed. Institutions, parliamentary documents indicate, are free to refuse such life-ending measures within their walls. However, their obligation to offer all the necessary medical care available does include the option of referral to other institutions or persons who do offers euthanasia or abortion. This is problematic from a Catholic point of view, but that is not what the hubbub was about. Archbishop De Kesel was correct in his statement that institutions should be free to make the choice to not end the lives of their patients.

Even before his appointment to Brussels, Archbishop De Kesel has been criticised for his perceived lack of support for the Catholic doctrines regarding the sanctity of all life. At his installation, there were protesters in front of the cathedral emphasising just this.*

Some said that the archbishop should have used the occasion to say that no Catholic institution can offer to end a life, be it unborn or elderly (or otherwise deemed unsuited to live). And unequivocal statements like that remain necessary, especially in a society where euthanasia and abortion are considered normal medical procedures and even part of a person’s rights. On the other hand, it will not always be effective to do so. The interview in question focusses on the person of the archbishop, and his experiences and thoughts, rather than official Catholic teaching. Of course the latter gets a look in, and a bishop can’t go and deny or ignore it when it does, and Archbishop De Kesel doesn’t. He sheds his personal light on it, not that of the official magisterium. And more often than not, these two overlap (about priestly celibacy, for example, he says: “I am not opposed to celibacy. I think it can be very useful, and personally I have never had the idea that I was a loser or that I missed something because I am celibate. Married people also miss all kinds of things. It is simply a matter of choice”).

Of course, bishops and priests (and lay Catholics, for that matter) must take care not to keep the pendulum on the side of personal experiences and thoughts alone. In the end, a bishop has the duty to teach and communicate the faith that has been taught and communicated to him, regardless of what he personally thinks of it.

In the context of this question, it is clear that the Church opposes the killing of people, no matter the situation. That includes abortion and euthanasia. Persons or institutions calling themselves Catholic are obliged to uphold this. Archbishop De Kesel has said that they should be free to do so, and the law supports this. The Church does not oblige non-Catholics to follow her teachings (although she greatly hopes and desires for them do so).

Archbishop Jozef De Kesel is in the spotlight, now that he is the primus inter pares of the Belgian Church, and that can be both positive and negative. He is experiencing much the same things as his predecessor, Archbishop Léonard, when he took up the job.

*This makes me wonder: why are we always looking at prelates and other Church officials to vocally defend life, when it is clear what the Church teaches? Why only them and not us? Are we less Catholic? Are we somehow less obliged to uphold the sanctity of life? I think that if we take our own responsibility (and not just in these matters either) in defending our faith, we would soon discover the bishops and priests, that we now look towards with expectation, at our side.