Four years later, the case against the bishop does not look as clear-cut

Bishop GijsenFour years ago, the commission charged with investigating accusations of sexual abuse against members of the clergy, decided that two such charges against the late Bishop Joannes Gijsen, ordinary of Roermond from 1972 to 1993, and of Reykjavik from 1996 to 2007, were plausible. As the bishop had died the year before, no legal action was possible against him. And that was for the better, it now turns out.

The local court of Gelderland judged this week that the commission had acted carelessly and broken basic legal regulations int he cases against Bishop Gijsen. The judge decided that the commission acted contrary to its own regulations, did not investigate the facts to a satisfactory extent and did not hear the defence. The court reproached the commission for accepting limited evidence: one charge against the bishop was deemed plausible simply because of the existence of a second unproven complaint.

The St. John foundation had charged the commission for unnecessary damaging the good name of clergy and other Church workers. Bishop Gijsen was one of the people they represented. The foundation considers the entire procedure followed by the commission in investigating charges of sexual abuse to be in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. The court thought otherwise and deemed this charge and others inadmissable, and thus offered no judgement on the guilt or innocence of Bishop Gijsen. But it did offer some stern words against the commission and their decisions, and so threw the conclusions of the last years into renewed doubt.


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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?

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.

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/.

In the spirit of openness

In what is perhaps the most significant step taken by a Dutch diocese in the wake of the abuse crisis, the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam has decided to make public all sexual abuse cases concerning priests of the diocese between 1945 and today. A special section of the diocesan website now features information on four cases in which some settlement has been reached, four which are still being investigated, and finally two statements on specific abuse cases. In some cases the accused priest is specifically named upon the request of the victim(s) or on the advice of the nationwide Meldpunt Seksueel Misbruik.

The Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam is without doubt the most visibly active diocese in the Netherlands in the fight against sexual abuse of minors by clerics. The ordinary, Bishop Jos Punt, has written several letters to keep the faithful informed about progress made and steps taken and has frequently met with victims or their families. Auxiliary Bishop Jan Hendriks has spoken out about the crisis as well, both on the diocesan website and his personal website.

This step, to make public the running and finalised cases against priests of the diocese, both alive and deceased, is a difficult but laudable step in the process of getting this terrible tragedy behind us. Ultimately, it is a matter of justice.

Closer to home, a complaints commission calls for apologies

Tower of the St. Pancras church

While the major abuse symposium enters its final day in Rome, at home the complaints commission of the Meldpunt Seksueel Misbruik, an institution established by the Dutch Church to receive complaints of sexual abuse and deals with the initial processing of them, has called for Archbishop Wim Eijk and Cardinal Ad Simonis, current and previous archbishops of Utrecht, to apologise for the abuse suffered by nine men in the parish of St. Pancras in Albergen.

The perpetrator of the abuse, who was parish priest at time, died in 1986, but the Meldpunt sees reason to believe that Cardinal Simonis was aware of what had happened, but didn’t act against the priest. There is no proof of this claim, it must be said.

The victims considered this decision as recognition of their pain, and will now start the process of claiming financial compensation from the Church.

In light of the need for openness, honesty and truthfulness, I think the two prelates should simply and humbly apologise for what went wrong.  Their own personal involvement, or lack thereof, does not play a part in that. Like Msgr. Scicluna emphasised yesterday, this is a matter of accountability. The archbishop and the cardinal now have the opportunity to lead by example. Let’s hope that an apology will indeed be forthcoming.

Source: Kerknieuws.

Photo credit: H. Pancratius Parochie