Massive abuse scandal shatters Dutch Catholic Church
The free and easy veneer of Dutch society
has been hiding a hideous secret.
EVERYBODY KNOWS THE STORY of the little Dutch boy who supposedly stuck his finger in a leaky dike, thus preventing an entire region from being flooded by the North Sea. The Catholic Church of the Netherlands is currently experiencing a comparably disastrous flood, and this time it can no longer count on its little boys to shut up and do their duty.
While Catholics form only a minority of 27% in the largely secular Netherlands, it appears that their institutions are responsible for a high proportion of the country’s sexual abuse. A new report released today shows an appalling history of sodomy and rape at the hands of priests and Church employees since the Second World War.
Should this surprise anyone? Catholic sex scandals have been sweeping the world like a wildfire for years (I have written extensively about the issue in Germany in my blog), and it was inevitable that they would catch up with Holland. Back in February 2010 a Dutch radio station called Wereldomroep and the newspaper NRC Handelsblad broke the news of the alleged abuse of three children by Salesian priests at a boarding school in 's-Heerenberg back in the 1960s. This was the trickle that led to today’s flood. As thousands of Dutch men and women began telling their own tales of fondling and buggery, the Church committee Hulp & Recht (Assistance & Justice) began handling the cases.
Former Dutch education minister and
current mayor of The Hague, Wim Deetman
In March of 2010 the Dutch Conference of Bishops appointed a former education minister, Wim Deetman, the mayor of The Hague, to head up a new commission to explore the issue. Its report, released today, is utterly devastating. Deetman estimates that between ten and twenty thousand Catholic children have been sexually abused in Catholic institutions since 1945. Moreover, “[t]he total number of persons that have reported sexual abuse by perpetrators working in the Roman Catholic Church in the period 1945 to 1981 comes to several tens of thousands. It can be assumed that several thousands of these victims suffered serious abuse.” So far, the Church has identified 800 perpetrators by name, of whom 105 are still alive.
What does the report mean by “abuse”? Deetman is very specific on this:
Sexual abuse is defined as: any sexual contact by representatives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese – priests, religious, pastoral workers employed by the church, lay persons and volunteers working for the church – with a child or youth under the age of 18, entrusted to the responsibility of those representatives, where those persons feel (felt) unable to refuse the sexual contact as a result of physical dominance, abuse of a position of authority, emotional pressure, compulsion or force.
A position of authority is defined as: an unequal power relationship (adult-minor, teacher-student, leader-youth member, etc.).
Sexual contact is defined as: any actual sexual contact, from touching or causing the touching of breasts or genitals and kissing with sexual intent up to and including sexual intercourse (vaginal, oral or rectal) or the penetration of the vagina or rectum with objects or fingers.
The report determined that “of the Dutch nationals aged 40 years or older, between one in a 100 (0.9%) and one in 300 (0.3%) have experienced unwanted sexual advances before the age of 18 from a perpetrator working in the Roman Catholic Church.”
In many cases, the abuse was systematic and the Church knew about it. Take for instance the order of the Salesians of Don Bosco in the 1950s and 1960s:
This congregation had strict standards and rules for dealing with cases of abuse, but they were applied with considerable leniency. There is evidence that sexually inappropriate behaviour towards members of the order may perhaps have been part of the internal monastic culture. When the responsible superiors became aware that cases of abuse were probably or certainly occurring, one of the most common measures taken was to transfer the individual concerned, sometimes abroad. Penance, transfer and possibly treatment were apparently more appealing than expulsion from the order with a view to avoiding the loss of members or preventing a scandal.
"A culture of silence":
Dormitory room at Don Rua boarding
school in 's-Heerenberg, Netherlands.
Sexual abuse frequently went hand-in-hand with ordinary physical abuse, which was endemic in Catholic institutions.
For example, the Brothers of Charity’s prohibition of physical punishment did not prevent these brothers from treating the children in boarding schools, including Eikenburg and Jonkerbosch, harshly. Former pupils have reported being beaten, not being given food or being forced to stand out in the cold for long periods. The violence also had a sexual connotation. Pupils who were afraid of the unpredictable and violent behaviour of brothers took care to become friends with them, as a result of which it was easier for them to become victims of sexual abuse.
The report blames a “culture of silence” within the Dutch Catholic Church and also places some of the blame on the practice of celibacy. But just what is it about celibacy that seems to drive some priests to abuse children? Thomas Patrick Doyle, an American priest and canon lawyer who has been campaigning on behalf of abuse victims since the mid-1980s, explained to the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant earlier this year that
[c]elibacy in itself doesn’t have to lead to rape. But it can give priests and bishops the idea that they are somehow on a higher spiritual plane. That narcissistic spirituality is the dark side of the church, the idea that you are better than others.
They set themselves up to be a-sexual beings and that is how they are perceived, by their victims as well. That is what made it such a terrible and lonely experience for them: how could a priest sin? It was inconceivable so nobody believed them. The damage these people suffered at the hands of people who were supposed to be paragons of virtue is incalculable.
The legend of the Little Dutch Boy
is getting a relaunch.
The scandal has already cost the Catholic Church its influence in Dutch society. According to a report released yesterday, 86% of the population in the heavily Catholic province of Brabant have lost virtually all their faith in the institution.
Some Catholics will take heart from the finding that, while the risk of sexual abuse inside institutions such as boarding schools and orphanages is roughly double the risk in society as a whole, there were no significant differences in the abuse rate between Catholic institutions and those of other denominations. In Holland, just like everywhere else, most child abuse occurs at the hands of family members. Even so, the Deetman Report calls for a public accounting of abuse within the Church and major changes to the ways in which the institution deals with the issue. After all, the report explains, “the Roman Catholic Church portrays itself publicly as a guardian of moral standards and values. For many people inside and outside the Church, it is precisely the violation of those standards and values by persons working in the Church that causes a sense of dismay.”
Amen to that.