The Netherlands’ bishops and leaders of Catholic religious orders are “shocked” by a new report from a commission investigating sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in the country.
“It fills us with shame and sorrow,” they said Dec. 16. “For us, religious and bishops, for the entire faith community, but also for society as a whole, it is painful to observe that a number of priests and religious failed when it came (to) conscientious behavior toward children and young people.”
Between 10,000 and 20,000 children suffered abused at Church institutions between 1945 and 2010. Perpetrators numbered in the hundreds and included priests, brothers and lay people in religious orders and congregations.
The investigation defined abuse as ranging from “unwanted sexual advances” to rape.
Wim Deetman, a Protestant former government minister, lead the commission, which was set up by the Catholic Church last year.
He said it was untenable to believe that leaders did not know there was a risk. He also stated that abuse continued, in part, because bishops and religious orders sometimes worked on their own to deal with the abuse and did not “hang out their dirty laundry.”
However, the commission concluded that “it is wrong to talk of a culture of silence” in the Dutch Catholic Church as a whole.
It did find evidence that “sexually inappropriate behavior” among the Salesians of Don Bosco “may perhaps have been part of the internal monastic culture.”
The commission received about 1,800 complaints of abuse at Catholic schools, seminaries and orphanages. It commissioned a broader survey of 34,000 people for a more comprehensive analysis of the scale and type of sexual abuse in the Church and in the broader society.
It found that 1 in 10 Dutch children suffered some form of sexual abuse, a rate rising to 1 in 5 among children who spent part of their youth in an institution like a boarding school or children’s home.
The perpetrators are not the only ones to blame, the Dutch bishops’ letter acknowledged.
“Church authorities who did not act correctly and did not give priority to the interests of and care for these victims also share in this blame. We deeply regret this abuse. Given the responsibility that we have assumed from our predecessors, we empathize with the victims and offer them our heartfelt apology.”
Violating the integrity of anyone, especially a child, is “reprehensible,” they stated.
They cited the report’s findings that the Church had a culture in which “no one spoke about sexuality or about sexual abuse.”
But neither “times nor circumstances can excuse the terrible suffering caused to children and their families,” the bishops said.
The bishops and directors of the Conference of Dutch Religious said they want to work to “do justice to the victims,” restore their respect, and help them heal as much as possible. They also offered apologies to parents who believed that they had entrusted their children to safe institutions and to “honorable” priests and religious.
The letter pledged to take “all measures” under Church and civil law when there is any suspicion of sexual abuse. The public prosecutor will be informed according to Dutch law when there is any suspicion.
“The Bishops' Conference and the Conference of Dutch Religious will exert abiding effort to do all that is needed and to remain accountable.”
The commission has referred 11 cases of alleged abuse to Dutch prosecutors, who opened only one investigation on the grounds the other 10 cases lacked sufficient details and happened too long ago to prosecute.
Cardinal Adrianus Johannes Simonis, the archbishop emeritus of Utrecht, said the report shows a “bleak picture” of the nature and extent of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. He agreed with the “regret and shame” expressed by other Dutch Catholic leaders and offered his sincere apology to the victims.
“This should never have happened,” he said Dec. 16.
The Dutch bishops have written a joint letter responding to the report. They have sent it to each diocese’s priests, deacons and pastoral workers. They ask that the letter be read during Mass this weekend and published in other ways.
Almost 1 in 3 of Netherlands’ 16 million people identify as Catholic.