Head of the Dutch bishops meets the Pope – some speculations about how the Church fights abuse

Although no details have emerged about yesterday’s private audience of Bishop Hans van den Hende and Dr. Wim Deetman with Pope Francis, the mere names of the participants make it virtually impossible to not conclude that the abuse crisis must have been at the heart of the encounter.

DSC_2699_31481e79b67ab70c5ca711c62299f166Bishop van den Hende (at right) is the bishop of Rotterdam and the president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference and, as such, will take part in February’s meeting in Rome with all the heads of the world’s bishops’ conference to discuss the abuse crisis and formulate a unified response. Dr. Deetman, former education minister and mayor of The Hague, headed the investigation into historical sexual abuse within the Catholic Church on behalf of the bishops and the Conference of Dutch Religious.

A recent study by the Dutch Broadcast Foundation (NOS) reveals that, in the seen years since the publication of the Deetman Commission’s conclusions, there have been 103 background checks on priests who were under consideration of being transferred or appointed in one of the Dutch dioceses. In one case a bishop blocked such a transfer or appointment because of past abuse claims against the priest involved. Similarly, a further 46 claims of “unacceptable behaviour” have been made since 2015, eight of which involved sexually unacceptable behaviour committed after the publication of the Deetman report. These all involved adults, not minors, and three of the claims are still under investigation. Two of the claims involve an unnamed religious movement which does not fall under the authority of a bishop and is also not a member of the Conference of Dutch Religious. An unidentified auxiliary bishop has informed the Vatican and the police about the movement and the claims against them, as well as his own bishop, who is keeping an eye on the developing situation.

Also interesting in light of the private audience is a letter sent to the participants in the meeting on “The Protection of Minors in the Church”, scheduled to take place from 21 to 24 February. The letter, issued by the organising committee consisting of Cardinals Cupich and Gracias, Archbishop Scicluna and Father Zollner, emphasised that “Absent a comprehensive and communal response, not only will we fail to bring healing to victim survivors, but the very credibility of the Church to carry on the mission of Christ will be in jeopardy throughout the world.” The authors urge the Conference presidents to reach out to and meet with victims before the meeting, something which the Dutch bishops, as well as bishops from other countries, have been doing over the last few years. In other countries, however, this is something new.* The letter concludes: “[E]ach of us needs to own this challenge, coming together in solidarity, humility, and penitence to repair the damage done, sharing a common commitment to transparency, and holding everyone in the Church accountable.”

As said, it will probably remain unknown what Bishop van den Hende and Dr. Deetman discussed with the Pope, unless one of them chooses to reveal something, but if the abuse crisis was discussed, perhaps the actions of the Dutch bishops, which can be an example of correct policies, not just for the Church, but for society as a whole, will influence the preparations of the February meeting in a constructive and positive way.

* A recent development from the Archdiocese of Cologne comes to mind, where a priest from Cameroon had been working among the French-speaking faithful. This despite the fact that he had been laicised in his home diocese. However, for his work abroad, his bishop is said to have issued letters confirming his good standing… The exact details remain unclear. The laicisation is aid to have taken place in 2013, and there is talk of an emeritus bishop of the Archdiocese of Bertoua having provided credentials to the former priest. The only living emeritus archbishop of that see is Belgian-born Roger Pirenne, who retired in 2009. Why credentials were seemingly issued by a retired bishop, instead of current Archbishop Joseph Atanga, remains unclear. It is clear, however, that the abuse issues is not yet being taken seriously in all parts of the world. Let’s hope that the February meeting can do something to change that.

Photo credit: KN/Jan Peeters

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One year since Deetman – the first report

Yesterday saw the publication of the first report on how the recommendations to deal with the sexual abuse crisis in the Church in the Netherlands, as drafted by Mr . Wim Deetman and his committee, have been implemented. This report is the first in a series that will regular track these implementations and offer corrective measures if necessary.

As the report, at 80 pages, is lengthy, I have not yet been able to do anything but skim through it. But since there are several interesting subjects for blog posts to draft from it, I didn’t want to wait too long with writing about it. First u, is an overview of the size of the problem.

Every diocese has been individually requested to present an overview of how many claims they have received and how far along the process of handling them has advanced. The dioceses have als been tasked with answering a questionnaire on such subjects as how sexuality and celibacy are handled in the seminaries for priests, deacons and pastoral workers, how newly ordained priests receive further training, if and how claims are treated outside the standard procedures, the contacts between victims and representatives of the dioceses, including the bishops, how diocesan websites inform and redirect,  and how last year’s final report has been published and made known within the dioceses.

  • The Archdiocese of Utrecht has received 51 claims since May of 2010. Of these, 24 have resulted in a verdict from the complaints committee, and 1 one of these also to a verdict from the compensation committee. There are also several claims which have not yet advanced beyond the announcement that a  claim will be made in the future.
  • The Diocese of Breda has received 16 claims, or announcements of claims, since June of 2010. 7 of these are true claims, and 2 have received a verdict from the complaints committee.
  • The Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden received 7 claims since June of 2010. One of these was lodged twice. One has advanced beyond the reception of the claim.
  • The Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam received 22 claims since March of 2010.Three have reached a verdict from the complaints committee and one has received financial compensation. Another claim is currently under investigation and may possibly receive financial compensation. The diocese also mentions that in the case that has received compensation, the abuser himself replied to the claim of a victim.
  • The Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch received 34 complaints since May of 2010. 26 have been handled by the complaints committee, and in case the victim appealed the verdict. In three cases, the abuser himself replied to the victim’s claim.
  • The Diocese of Roermond has received 22 claims of which 15 have advanced to a verdict from the complaints committee, and a further four from the compensation committee.
  • The Diocese of Rotterdam, lastly, lists 36 claims, of which 16 pertain to other dioceses or religious orders. Six claims have been judged justified and two of these received financial compensation.

The reasons who a fairly low number of claims have led to verdicts or compensation are myriad. Firstly, the processes involved are slow. Secondly, not all victims may have desired anything but recognition of what has been done to them. And then there is also the sad fact that not all claims are justified.

In total, the Dutch dioceses have received 188 claims of sexual abuse by priests or other workers in the Church, many of whom are no longer alive. The religious orders have also received claims, but that’s a topic for another blog posts.

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.

The search for facts

Next Wednesday, the 4th of April, looks to be an important day in the search for facts in the ongoing abuse crisis, and more specifically the recent news about past castrations of minors in the care of the Church. On that day, the parliamentary Commissions for Justice and Security and Health Care, Welfare and Sports will hear journalist Joep Dohmen (pictured), who broke the news in the NRC daily, and Wim Deetman, who led last year’s extensive investigation of sexual abuse of minors within the Church.

The Note that has been prepared by the Deetman commission is an extensive refutation of claims made by Mr. Dohmen in NRC, not only about the castrations, but also about the involvement of former Prime Minister Victor Marijnen (prime minister from 1963 to 1965), who allegedly tried to have facts hushed up. The Note is built on the nature of the castration claims, which were very incomplete and contradictory, and most importantly counters claims that the Deetman investigation was incomplete.

What Mr. Dohmen intends to say on the 4th is not yet known, but he will undoubtedly defend his own research and claims. The combined parliamentary commission will hear Mr. Deetman at 10 am and Mr. Dohmen at 11.

We’re not done yet

In fact, the problem may only be getting bigger in the immediate future.

After a plenary debate in Parliament yesterday, Justice secretary Ivo Opstelten will be asking the Church to look into what happened to young women and girls in the care of the Church. This after the investigation of the Deetman commission revealed the majority of abuse victims to have been male, Katholiek Nieuwsblad reports. Physical and psychological violence should now also be investigated, as well as the issue of babies put up for adoption on the insistence of Church workers.

Secretary Opstelten is said to be planning to ask Mr. Wim Deetman to also look into these new topics, which were not part of the initial investigation, as it focussed exclusively on sexual abuse of minors. Archbishop Eijk, in a meeting with Parliament members two weeks ago, said that bishops and religious superiros had spoken about including physical and psychological violence in the assignment given to the Deetman commission, but decided against it because of the difficulty of defining violence.

The Deetman commission itself, per its final report, is hesitant about the usefulness of such an investigation, and has emphasised the importance of investigating such forms of abuse, together with sexual abuse, child pornography, child prostitution and people trafficking as a social problem. The Samson commission is investigating the plight of children placed under the care of the government between 1973 and today, and has received 600 claims already. Mr. Deetman suggested awaiting the result of that investigation.

I tend to agree with Deetman’s suggestion. Why have two investigations into roughly the same issue, and why take a small sampling of society to get a big picture? After all, physical abuse took place in our society, not just the Church. Solving the problem in the Church does not solve it in schools, clubs and families. We must not bury our heads and the sand and pretend society as a whole knows no problems, that it is only the Church which does things wrong. Look at the whole picture, not just one or two details. By all means, the Church must look hard at her recent past and do what can be done to set things straight, but she by no means the only one who must do so.

Photo credit: Tweedekamer.nl

The heart of the report: “What on earth has gone wrong?”

The Deetman report, still wrapped in plastic before today's press conference

Having just watched the press conference about the final report of the Deetman committee, I am letting the words and number sink in. I took some notes as Mr. Deetman elaborated on the conclusions of the 18-month investigation, and I will use those to compose this blog post. For readers who want a more thorough explanation: you can download a summary in English here. The complete report, consisting of two hefty books, can be purchased from the publisher or in bookstores.

The title of this post can be considered the main conclusion that the committee drew, the question of “what has happened in society that led to such outbursts of violence?” Said violence included the sexual abuse in Catholic institutions, but also much more beyond. That, I believe, is the question that society should ask itself, and which this report can hopefully help in finding a solution for.

Anyway, on the points of the conclusion which I jotted down:

Mr. Deetman started by expressing his surprise at finding that the structure of the Church was and is fragmented, despite impressions. Bishop, dioceses, orders and superiors often acted alone, keeping problems to themselves and trying to find solutions internally. The capacity to solve said problems was small or non-existent. The bishops had the topic of sexual abuse on the agenda since the late 1940s, but efforts to find solutions ceased at the onset of the Second Vatican Council and certainly at the Pastoral Council. Many other things that needed answers led to the abuse question being buried and forgotten. Only in the 1980s, when women’s movements drew attention to the abuse of women, did the sexual abuse of minors return to the agenda of the bishops. This led to the creation of the Hulp & Recht agency, the first in the world of its kind.

The issue of cultural silence, the statement that people simply did not know, can not be upheld. People, including the Catholic laity, did know, but didn’t act on it, and when they did, the focus was on the perpetrators. Mr. Deetman explains that this was fed by canon law, which as an internal legal body is focused on the the identity and behaviour of those within the Church. Victims were left out in the cold for various reasons, including the fact that talking about sexuality was a taboo and the concept of a person with authority committing such things was, frankly, not believed.

Returning to the aforementioned pastoral council, this gave the impression that the Church’s teaching about celibacy would change soon. All the priests contacted by the Deetman committee, who became priests in this time, said they did so with the expectation that they would soon not be required to live celibate anymore.

Of a survey among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, the committee drew the following conclusions, although it stresses that the numbers should be treated extremely careful and that the margins are intentionally large.

  1. 1 in every 10 Dutch people aged 40 and older (which is 9.7% of the population) has been at one time sexually approached by someone from outside the family before they were 18.
  2. This number is slightly higher among Catholics, but that is not because of the religion. Cultural, social, economic and other factors also play a part.
  3. The chance of sexual harassment is twice as high within confined relationships of authority, such as schools and daycare centres. This, again, is not limited to Catholic institutions, but also occurs elsewhere.
  4. 1 in every 2 to 300 people have some experience with sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, in our outside specific institutions. The chance of such is higher in boarding schools. The reason: Failed supervision.
  5. The total number of abused people, who were minors at the time and spent at least a part of their youth in boarding schools, is 10 to 20,000. In total, the number is in the several tens of thousands. The abuse has a wide range, from mild and without physical contact to involving penetration. The severity and the consequences are therefore equally divergent. There were about 1,000 serious cases within boarding schools, and several thousand outside it.
Deetman during the press conference

The question of whether celibacy plays a role in whether or not a man is likely to abuse a minor can be answered with a no. There is no evidence that celibacy leads to abuse. But Deetman stressed there  that this is not a fact. The committee has simply been unable to find evidence for it, which does not mean it does not exist. Despite that, there have been several cases of sexuality out of need. If celibacy had been voluntary, a number of cases would not have happened.

And then, the final question: and now?

The work of the committee, Deetman said, was to a certain extent sad and frustrating, since it deals with an incomplete past which we can do nothing about. We can’t change the facts.

As for practical measures to prevent such horrible crimes happening again, the committee advised the bishops and the religious conference to appoint a single portfolio holder for the abuse question: a person who can keep an eye on things and be a recognisable go-to person and coordinator of the Church’s response to future developments. Archbishop Eijk has assured Mr. Deetman that there will a group of four people, including at least one bishop, to hold that portfolio.

One of the things this group will need to focus on is the continuing contact with victims. In the past, there have been meetings between bishops or superiors and victims from which the victims came back severely disappointed, while the bishop or superior thought it was a good conversation. Compensation, help, a listening ear and conversation, this is what is needed in the future. Human relations need to be restored, which include understanding and listening.

Later today, as I wrote in the previous post, the bishops and the religious conference will offer a reaction to all of the above.

Photo credit: [1] Antoin Peeters, [2] NRC/screenshot NOS