As the Catholic Church is gearing up for next month’s major summit on sexual abuse within her ranks, an interesting development in the Netherlands. A 74-year-old man, who was abused at the age of 13 while in seminary, is now charging the Catholic Church, the Dutch bishops and also the Pope with being part of a criminal organisation “with a goal of preventing or hindering the revelation of the abuse or the raping of minors”.
Mr. Theo Bruyns has already received financial damages for what he suffered, but says he is still chased by feelings of injustice, which is why he is now bringing criminal proceedings against the Church and her leaders. “They have discouraged, kept secret [the reporting of crimes], and organised it all. I have read all the documents and have seen how well this organisation functions. How they managed to hide and keep everything secret throughout the centuries”.
Professor Peter Tak of the University of Nijmegen, an internationally recognised expert in comparative criminal law, says that Mr. Bruyns has a difficult case, as the pope is not subject to Dutch law. “We do not automatically have the authority here to try the Pope,” adding that he does not know if the pope, being a head of state, has diplomatic immunity. Bruyns’ lawyer, Jan Boone, is more certain: “Trying the pope would be unique, but it is possible. It has been tried in America, but no decision has yet been made there.”
The Catholic Church in the Netherlands is keeping a low profile in commenting on this case, underlining that it regrets and condemns sexual abuse. “Mr Bruyns has the right to now follow this path through the means of legal action.” The Church will await the reaction of the public prosecutor “and will obviously cooperate fully.”
While the way the Dutch bishops’ reacted to the abuse crisis as it broke in the Netherlands over the past decades has been thorough and an example for other parts of society, it is clear that it has not been comprehensive when it comes to satisfying all victims. A financial compensation, which is also a recognition of the abuse suffered, clearly does not automatically alleviate feelings of injustice, as in the case of Mr. Bruyns. Perhaps it is good to learn that not all the harm and damage done by abusers can ever be remedied. Some scars will remain, which makes the whole sordid affair only that more painful.
Should this case succeed, it would have serious repercussions across the world. No serious court of law has accused bishops or pope, and I personally doubt if this will happen. There have been past attempts in the Netherlands at listing the Church as a criminal organisation, which have all failed. The Dutch criminal law code identifies a criminal organisation as “having the purpose of committing crimes”. A legal database offers further factors, from past jurisprudence, stating that a criminal organisation must have “some degree of structure and organisation and must be lasting,” in addition to the aforementioned purpose of committing crimes. It seems that it must first be proven that the Catholic Church has that purpose, before any further conclusions can be drawn. I don’t see it happening.