The fight against abuse – more than words and politics

global_nienstedtThose that were wondering if Pope Francis’ actions against sexual abuse in the Church would be limited to establishing tribunals and commissions are likely to change their minds today. After Bishop Robert Finn, two more American bishops saw their resignation accepted, resignations they tendered for failing to protect children under their ultimate responsibility. Archbishop John Nienstedt (pictured) and Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis were removed from office one week after new criminal proceedings were launched against the archdiocese. Neither bishop is himself guilty of abuse, it must be stressed, but they are investigated for their actions after a priest of the archdiocese, now laicised, was arrested and convicted for sexual abuse. He now serves a prison term.

The Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis will be administred by Archbishop Bernard Hebda, Coadjutor Archbishop of Newark, and the sole remaining auxiliary bishop, Msgr. Andrew Cozzens, who was appointed in 2013, well after the abuse case that resulted in today’s resignations.

Also today, the Holy See announced a starting date of the process against Mr. Józef Wesolowski, former archbishop and Apostolic Nuncio to the Dominican Republic, who has been charged with sexual abuse of minors while in Santo Domingo and the possession of child porn when he had returned to Rome in 2013. He had his priestly faculties and titles removed in 2014, and the expectation that he will be convicted in the face of overwhelming evidence.

It appears that Pope Francis is not waiting for the establishment of the tribunal which can charge bishops with negligence in the face of abuse, but is removing bishops who have failed. We can’t know if the resignation of Archbishop Nienstedt and Bishop Piché was the result of their own deliberations or a response to the advice of others. Pope Francis, however, has been clear that bishops must be critical of themselves and take their responsibilities for their actions or inactions when faced with painful and difficult abuse cases.

As a citizen of Vatican City, Mr. Wesolowski can be tried in that country (in close cooperation with the Dominican Republic authorities), while Archbishop Nienstedt and Bishop Piché will likely remain under investigation by American authorities as part of the larger investigation into the conduct of the archdiocese.

A month before retirement, Archbishop Léonard in court

léonardA court in Liège has convicted Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard of negligence in the face of complaints against an abusive priest, made known to him when he was bishop of Namur in the 1990s. The victim intially kept quiet about the years of sexual abuse he suffered, wanting to be a priest himself, but eventually did inform the Catholic Church. He had a long conversation with then-Bishop André-Mutien Léonard, but saw little follow-up. The priest in question was merely transferred. Only in 2001 did the victim go to court over the abuse and was eventually awarded 37,000 euros in damages, to be paid by the abusive priest. Archbishop Léonard was also charged in 2013, but not convicted because he wasn’t a bishop yet when the abuse took place and the victim had already been awarded damages. A subsequent appeal was successful, and Archbishop Léonard has now been ordered to pay an additional 10,000 euros in damages for having underestimated the seriousness of the abuse. Five percent of the victim’s disability is due to the archbishop’s inaction, the court judged.

This is the first time that a bishop in Belgium has been convicted for failing to act against sexual abuse by clergy. This case is all the more noticeable in light of the recent removal of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, two years after he was convicted of similarly failing to act (Bishop Finn waited overly long before reporting a priest who possessed child porn to the authorities). Archbishop Léonard will most likely not be facing such a removal as he turns 75 next month and will send his letter of resignation to the Holy Father. Another important difference in the two cases is that Archbishop Léonard was dealing with crimes which took place when the period of limitation had already ended.

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, established by Pope Francis in March of 2014, has recently been emphasising the accountability of bishops, and it may be expected that they will want to take a close look at this case. Ever since the sexual abuse crisis broke, and especially in the last five years, the Church does not hold to periods of limitation when it comes to sexual abuse by clergy.

I have no doubt that the archbishop will accept the verdict, nor do I suspect any ill will in his transfer of the abusive priest, but it is clear that it was a wrong decision (although we don’t know if the priest went on abusing elsewhere, that is not a risk that should ever be taken). And wrong decisions also have their consequences.

Financial woes strike Oslo – Bishop charged

Bernt_EidsvigCatholic news from Norway is a rare thing, but today the Church there makes all the wrong headlines. There has been a run-up of sorts over the past months, when it became clear that the Diocese of Oslo had been providing inaccurate membership numbers. The Norwegian Catholic Church largely consisting of immigrants, the diocese was said to have made the assumptions that people were Catholic because they came from a predominantly Catholic country, thus collecting more financial support from the state.

This morning that came to a head when the Oslo police raided the diocesan offices and charged two people, including Bishop Bernt Ivar Eidsvig, with aggravated fraud, for a total sum of some 50 million Norwegian kroner (6.5 million USD/ 5.8 million euros).

This situation sounds not too different from the one that struck the Diocese of Limburg in Germany, and such financial mismanagement has of course been reason for bishops to be removed by the Pope. It is too early to say if that will happen to Bishop Eidsvig, of course, but his being charged is no trifling matter.

A statement from the diocese talks of “preliminary charges”, and adds that it was never their intention to record people as members against their wishes. The statement also mentions ongoing efforts to clean up their records and expresses hope for a quick clarification.

Bishop Bernt Ivar Eidsvig has been the bishop of Oslo since 2005. He has also been the Apostolic Administrator of Trondheim since 2009. A member of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine, the 61-year-old prelate is the fourth bishop of Oslo since it was established as a diocese in 1953.

2014, a year in review

As the year ends, it is once more time to look back at the past year in this blog. It wasn’t quite 2013, but there was still enough to write and think about. I have been a bit less active in writing, for reasons of real life, but the number of page views in 2014 still topped out at close to 100,000. An altogether satisfactory number.

In this review of the year, I will look back on various topics that kept us busy in 2014.

The Catholic Church in the Netherlands

jaimeThere have been many interesting things going in locally, some positive, some negative, but together they reflect the life of the Catholic Church in this country. From Roermond, the case of Bishop Frans Schraven, a martyr for the faith in China, was sent to Rome in light of a future beatification. The financial numbers of 2012 were published and showed a continued downward slope. The Dutch government sent a new – and royal – ambassador (pictured at left) to the Holy See. The Congregation for the Religious sent their second man to meet representatives of religious orders in the Netherlands. Monks of a declining abbey announced that they would be moving to a small island of the northern coast of the country. Personally, I experienced aprocession warfhuizen rain-soaked but satisfying pilgrimage (at right) to another religious site in the north. The Dutch bishops felt the need to stand up against a resurgence of anti-Semitism, and they also announced the upcoming publication of a new Missal translation. My own diocese saw the ordination of two new transitional deacons, while the sole hermit residing in that same diocese also announced the good news of his own upcoming ordination. Protestant clergy discovered the benefits, if not the deeper meaning, of the Roman collar. A community fighting the biography simonisclosing of their local Church appeal to the Pope. Catholic Voices, the successful communications initiative from the UK, launches a Dutch chapter. The retired archbishop of Utrecht, Cardinal Ad Simonis, is the subject of a major biography (cover at left). And in Nijmegen, the Diocese announces changes to the local university chaplaincy.

Cardinal Eijk

eijkThe archbishop of Utrecht remains unenviable as he continues in his work as president of the Bishops’ Conference, member of the Curia in Rome, and all too often a scapegoat. This year, he made headlines when stating that the decisions of the Council of Trent are still current, which caused resentment among ecumenical partners. He was also accused of vetoing a papal visit to the Netherlands, which turned out to be quite untrue, and the bishops ended the rumours by releasing a joint statement.

The seminaries

ariënsinstituut seminariansBy the end of summer, a debate erupted about the future of the seminaries in the Netherlands. Some parties advocated the creation of one or two major seminaries, while others were in favour of continuing with the current six. The majority of seminary directors seemed to favour the first option. Earlier in the year, the Archdiocese of Utrecht, restarted its own seminary (first class, staff and family at left).

Pope Francis

cardinals consistoryThe world remains interested in Pope Francis, and it was no different in this blog. First up, there was his first consistory, in which he created 16 new cardinals, including a fair few unexpected ones. The Holy Father was interviewed by young people from Belgium (at left), an interview that was also televised. Later, the verse vis,luc van looy, francisPope also sent a personal note to the Netherlands, to the participants and organisation of the Catholic Youth Festival. 50,000 altar servers from Germany made a pilgrimage to Rome, where Pope Francis spoke to them. The national Church of the Dutch, the Church of the Frisians, marked the anniversary of its dedication, and Pope Francis sent a note of congratulations. The Pope’s decision to terminate the appointment of the commander of the Swiss Guard led to much rumour, which proved pope francis curia christmas addressunfounded later. Pope Francis clarified this and other questions in a new interview. By the end of the year, Pope Francis announced his second consistory. Finally, his Christmas address to the Curia caused new shockwaves, but deserves a good reading by everyone.

New appointments

101020marx250There has been a fair amount of new appointments in 2014, and especially in Germany. First Fr. Herwig Gössl was appointed as auxiliary bishop of Bamberg. Cardinal Reinhard Marx (at left) was elected as the new president of the German Bishops’ Conference, in addition to his many other duties. In Essen, Bishop Franz Vorrath retired and Fr Wilhelm Zimmermann was appointed as new auxiliary bishop. Archbishop Werner Thissen of Hamburg retired while his successor remains to be appointed. Fr. Stefan Oster was woelki32appointed as the new Bishop of Passau, and Fr. Stefan Burger was the new Archbishop of Freiburg im Breisgau. The Diocese of Erfurt was finally given a new bishop in the person of Bishop Ulrich Neymeyr, after waiting for two years. The biggest appointment of the year was in Cologne, where Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki (at right) returned from Berlin to succeed Cardinal Joachim Meisner.

Mgr%20Bert%20van%20Megen2-loreWhile there were no new bishops in the Netherlands, a Dutch priest was appointed to represent the Holy See in Sudan and Eritrea. Father Bert van Megen (at left) was consecrated by the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

In Rome, there were also some notable appointments: Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera left the Congregation or Divine Worship to become Archbishop of his native Valencia. He was later succeeded by Cardinal Robert Sarah. Lastly, Pope Francis appointed a new camerlengo and vice-camerlengo.

The Synod

eijk synodThe big topic in the second half of the year was the Synod of Bishops’ Extraordinary Assembly on the family. In the eyes of the rest of the world, Germany remains a focal point of liberal trends that are at odds with Catholic teaching. That is not always true, but some bishops did strengthen that opinion. Bishop Ackermann of Trier was the first to be criticised for his comments on marriage and sexuality. From Brazil, Austrian-born Bishop Kräutler made comments on celibacy, the ordination of women and the Eucharist, and is said to have the Pope’s blessing to develop these ideas further in johan-bonnyBrazil. In Belgium, Bishop Johan Bonny (at left)was the loudest voice to advocate changes in the teachings on marriage, both before and after the Synod. At the Synod, Belgian Cardinal Danneels spoke in favour of mercy, but did not go as far as Bishop Bonny. In the Netherlands, Bishop Rob Mutsaerts explained that the Synod was not about changing doctrine, and Bishop Gerard de Korte stressed the importance of mercy and finding new words to reach people. How doctrine can change remains an important question.


tebartzSpilling over from last year, the final acts of the case of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst (at right) and the Diocese of Limburg played out as it became clear that the Vatican did not want the bishop to stay. He was to retire and Bishop Manfred Grothe, auxiliary bishop of neighbouring Paderborn was appointed as Apostolic Administrator. The last statement of Bishop Tebartz-van Elst spoke of forgiveness and a new beginning. Bishop Grothe presented an overview of the situation since then in his letter for Advent.

Sexual abuse

gijsenThe sexual abuse crisis, while quieter than in the past, still continues, with a few shocking revelations and continuing developments in helping the victims. In 2014, three claims of abuse against the late Bishop Gijsen (at left) were deemed plausible, and the late Bishop Niënhaus, auxiliary of Utrecht, was revealed to have been guilty of sexual abuse. Shortly after the news about Bishop Gijsen, Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond offered a Mass of penance and reconciliation and said that there is no excuse for sexual abuse by people of the Church. Later, a court decision forced the bishops to continue accepting new claims of abuse by deceased perpetrators, or cases which happened too long ago to be pursued by a court, until well into 2015.

International events

frans van der lugtThis blog has a clear focus on the local Church in Northwestern Europe, and also on Rome of course, but sometimes events in other parts of the world deserve a place here. In fact, the most-read blog post of the year, with more than 3,900 views, is in this category. It is the sad news of the death of Fr. Frans van der Lugt (at right) in Syria. Another death, this time because of a car crash, was vital wilderinkthat of Dutch-born Bishop Vital Wilderink (at left) in Brazil. Also in South America, the retirement of the Bishop of Paramaribo, also a Dutchman, mad me wonder of his successor would be a native son of Suriname. And then there was the shocking crash of flight MH17 in Ukraine, shot down by rebels, killing 298 people.

From Rome

marriageAnd lastly, Rome also had its say in various developments and decisions which came down to us. The Congregation or Divine Worship urged for restraint in the sign of peace during Mass, Pope Francis married 20 Roman couples and changes in the Curia gave some indications of the future.


In 2014 the following cardinals returned to the Father:

  • José da Cruz Cardinal Policarpo, Cardinal-priest of San Antonio in Campo Marzio, Patriarch emeritus of Lisbon
  • Emmanuel III Cardinal Delly, Cardinal-Patriarch, Patriarch emeritus of Babylon of the Chaldeans
  • Marco Cardinal Cé, Cardinal-Priest of San Marco, Patriarch emeritus of Venice
  • Duraisamy Simon Cardinal Lourdusamy, Cardinal-Priest of Santa Maria della Grazie alle Fornaci fuori Porta Cavalleggeri, Prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches and Archbishop emeritus of Bangalore
  • Bernard Cardinal Agré, Cardinal-Priest of San Giovanni Crisostomo a Monte Sacro Alto, Archbishop emeritus of Abidjan
  • Francesco Cardinal Marchisano, Cardinal-Priest of Santa Lucia del Gonfalone, President emeritus of the Labour Office of the Apostolic See
  • Edward Bede Cardinal Clancy, Cardinal-Priest of Santa Maria in Vallicella, Archbishop emeritus of Sydney
  • Edmund Casimir Cardinal Szoka, Cardinal-Priest of Santi Andrea e Gregorio  al Monte Celio, Archbishop emeritus of Detroit, President emeritus of the Governorate of the Vatican City State, President emeritus of the Pontifical Commission or the Vatican City State
  • Fiorenzo Cardinal Angelini, Cardinal-Priest of Santo Spirito  in Sassia, President emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers
  • Jorge María Cardinal Mejía, Cardinal-Priest of San Girolamo della Carità, Librarian emeritus of the Vatican Apostolic Library and Archivist emeritus of the Vatican Secret Archives

Whereas 2013 saw the death of more than a few bishops in Northwestern Europa, in 2014 we lost only two:

  • Bishop Hubert Luthe, Bishop emeritus of Essen
  • Bishop Wolfgang Kirchgässner, Titular Bishop of Druas, Auxiliary Bishop emeritus of Freiburg im Breisgau

In Bruges, priest once found guilty of abuse returns to the fold

Bisdom%20BruggeA potentially difficult situation that is bound to raise more than a few eyebrows has developed in the Diocese of Bruges, as Bishop Jozef De Kesel has assigned a priest, who has been found guilty of at least one case of molesting a minor in the past, to the parish federation in Middelkerke, halfway between Ostend and Nieuwpoort on the Belgian coast.

Father Tom Flamez appeared in court in 2008 and 2009, where he was found guilty of sexual molestation of teenage boy. In January of 2009, the court, for reasons of its own, decided to waive any punishment, as Bishop De Kesel explains in a statement released today:

de kesel“For a period of five years, Tom Flamez was permanently monitored by the house of justice in Courtrai. Even during this time the probation commission had no objections to an eventual appointment as parish priest. Unlike the reporting of some media he never violated the probationary  conditions. In January of 2014 the commission of the court of Courtrai decided that the trial period could be ended. Until this day Tom Flamez is sustainably and professionally supervised.”

In the meanwhile I have also presented this file to a higher ecclesial authority. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith agreed with an eventual appointment, starting on 15 January 2014. Tom Flamez has been working on occasion in the parish of Middelkerke since September of 2011. His work there was positively evaluated. All this led me to decide, after consulting the diocesan council, to appoint Tom Flamez as parish priest in the federation of Middelkerke. Convinced that everyone who has shown to be able deserves a second chance, I hope that Tom Flamez will be given the opportunity to properly fulfill the duties entrusted to him.”

This statement is a response to ongoing media speculations that Fr. Flamez did violate the conditions of his probation, something which the bishop denies. Additionally, many also link him to the disgraced former bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, who resigned in 2010 after admitting being guilty of years of sexual abuse. This subject, of the sexual abuse or violation of minors, is extremely sensitive and needs to be handled very carefully. In the first place for the sake of the victims, but also for all others involved with the perpetrator in his new duties.

Of course, Bishop De Kesel is correct that everyone deserves a second chance when he or she is able to take it. And our entire legal system is founded on the principle that once a person has been punished for a crime, he can’t be punished again for that same crime. He starts over with a clean slate, so to speak. But as Fr. Flamez has not been punished (for reasons we don’t know – perhaps the case was settled in some form outside court), many may feel that this principle does not apply to him.

Bishop De Kesel, backed by not only his own diocesan council, but also by the court and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith, which has authority in all abuse cases, has decided that there is no reason for Fr. Flamez not to be the priest in a parish, working with people of all ages, including children and youth. And in this he also seems to be supported by the church in Middelkerke, where Fr. Flamez has been a familiar face for these past three years.

Let’s hope his trust is justified, and that this is an example of how people who once made grave mistakes can leave those behind them.


Yesterday it turned out that the careful process followed by the bishop – consulting both his diocesan council and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before appointing Fr. Flamez – was not as careful as it seemed. He forgot one all-important group: the victims of sexual abuse by clergy. And it was Fr. Flamez himself who made the best call possible in not accepting the appointment as parish priest of Middelkerke. A statement published yesterday says that the bishop realises that the appointment hurt the victims of sexual abuse, and that that was never his intention. Which begs the question: why did he not realise this beforehand?

The Belgian bishops use certain guidelines when dealing with clergy who have been found guilty of sexual abuse of minors. One of these is that they can never be allowed to work with children and young people again. The position of parish priest does entail working with people of all ages, including youth and children.

We can’t know what the exact motivation was for Fr. Flamez’ decision not to accept the appointment. Was it the questions in the media which made his position untenable, or perhaps a realisation that this was not the sort of duty he could take up considering his past mistakes? Yesterday’s statement only mentions “given circumstances”, which is as vague as it gets.

All in all, this whole situation, despite the apparent care expressed in certain areas, gives the impression of carelessness. The victims, be they of the priest in question or of other clergy, can not be ignored. The Church is under scrutiny in this area, and may well serve as an example to other institutions. But not when things like this happen.

Court steps in: more time for victims of abuse to come forward

rechtbankFor the first time, a civil court has ordered a practical change in how the Church handles the abuse crisis in the Netherlands. The deadline for reporting past abuses by perpetrators who are either deceased or which happened too long ago to be pursued by a court of law, originally set for 1 July 2014, needs to be extended to at least the first of May of 2015. This, the Judge decided, better reflects the deadlines used in neighbouring countries and is a reflection of the sometimes decades-long silence kept by the victims for reasons of fear, shame or the denial of Church authorities. The court stated that setting a deadline is, in itself, justified, but in this case the Church did not adequately involve the interests of all parties involved. The Bishops’ Conference and the Conference of Dutch Religious should have realised better that the reporting abuse was often a very big and difficult step to take for the victims. The court felt that this was not properly respected in setting the original deadline.

The decision is the result of proceedings started by five women and the Vrouwenplatform Kerkelijk Kindermisbruik (Women’s platform of child abuse in the Church) who felt that the Church did not offer enough time for victims of physical abuse, especially women, to report their cases. The court agreed with this, stating that the period of 2 year and 8 months that cases could be reported was too short. Three years and six months is a reasonable period, the judge decided.

The bishops and religious abide with the decision of the court and will look into ways of implementing it.

Confidentiality – protecting the guilty?

There are media who make much of the fact that the Church does not automatically and immediately come forward about abuse cases, especially when a bishop is involved, but only when asked about it. It is seen as an attempt of hiding the facts, something that the Church has indeed been guilty of in decades past. This conclusion is understandable, but not accurate, however. From the start of the abuse crisis, the issue of confidentiality has played an important part in the question of how to deal with accusations, victims and perpetrators. On the one hand, it was out of the question that proven abuse be hidden or even denied. On the other, there was the obligation that both victim and accused be protected from unwanted attention. Until proven guilty, the accused is, obviously, considered innocent. The victim often deals with intensely personal and very emotional and painful experiences that he or she often only wants to share with the world when they deem it necessary or helpful, if at all.

The complaints commission established by the Church to collect and resolve all complaints of sexual abuse explains that confidentiality is import for three reasons:

It lowers the threshold

Victims seek recognition and compensation, but to tell their story after an often long period of silence is very difficult and confrontational. Confidentiality makes this easier. Likewise, it allows perpetrators to sooner admit their guilt and persons in authority to recognise the abuse.

Plausibility comes first

The complaints procedure deals with recognition and compensation for the victim. Public indictment or punishment for the victim are beyond its scope. The accusation must be plausible and certain facts need to be correct, mostly about the accused, the place where the abuse took place and the year. This plausibility is considered enough to recognise the victims and the abuse.

The accused are generally deceased

Most accused parties can not defend themselves. That is why their rights, nor the feelings of fellow members of religious orders, fellow priests and family members, can not be ignored.

To ensure this confidentiality, certain measures are taken:

Procedures take place out of the public eye

This allows maximum opportunities for both parties to come to a solution.

All advice is published anonymously

No names are mentioned on the website of the Meldpunt Seksueel Misbruik RKK. This allows openness about the cases dealt with, the criteria used and the reasoning for allowing financial compensation. The abuse is made completely public, but the identity of all parties involved is protected.

All employees of and persons involved with the commission are bound to secrecy

It is clear that not everyone agrees with this. Many would welcome full  openness with names, dates and locations. However, in a society that protects the rights of individuals, especially those who can not defend themselves, this is not an option. The victims, whose needs always come first in these procedures, may at some point reveal more details. But that is theirs to decide, and many will not want to. We should never demand they tell all about what happened to them, unless they decide to do so. And if they don’t, we must respect that choice.

And as for the perpetrators: if they are dead, there is not much more that can be done. A dead man can’t be put on trial. If he still lives, but his crimes are subject to the statures of limitations, the law is powerless. The Church should not be, however, and once a priest, bishop or other worker in the Church is proven guilty, there must be a form of punishment. However, no punishment will please everyone…

If the perpetrator lives and the crime took place recently enough, the police must be informed and this person must be tried. This is something the Church does now, but the fact remains that these cases are a small minority. Most abuse took place decades ago, and many perpetrators are no longer alive.