Church sex abuse widespread – and leaders knew about it

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Thousands of children suffered sexual abuse in Dutch Catholic institutions over the past 65 years and church officials knew about the abuse but failed to stop it or help victims because they feared sparking scandals, according to a long-awaited report published yesterday.

The investigation estimated that one in five Dutch children who attended orphanages or boarding schools suffered some form of sexual abuse. The findings detailed some of the most widespread abuse linked to the Catholic church to date.

The abuse ranged from “unwanted sexual advances” to rape, the report said. Abusers numbered in the hundreds, at least, and included priests, brothers, pastors and lay people who worked in religious orders and congregations.

The number of abuse victims who spent some of their youth in church institutions probably lies somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000, according to the report, which covered the period back as far as 1945.

The archbishop of Utrecht apologised to victims on behalf of the entire Dutch Catholic organisation, saying the report “fills us with shame and sorrow”.

The commission behind the investigation was set up last year under the leadership of former government minister Wim Deetman, who said there could be no doubt church leaders knew of the problem. “The idea that people did not know there was a risk is untenable,” he said.

Mr Deetman said abuse continued in part because the Catholic church in the Netherlands was splintered, so bishops and religious orders sometimes worked autonomously to deal with abuse and “did not hang out their dirty laundry”. However, he said the commission concluded that “it is wrong to talk of a culture of silence” by the church as a whole.

The probe followed allegations of repeated incidents of abuse at one cloister that spread to claims from Catholic institutions across the country.

The commission received some 1,800 complaints of abuse at Catholic schools, seminaries and orphanages. It then conducted a broader survey of the general population to ascertain the scale and nature of sexual abuse of minors in the church and elsewhere.

Based on a survey of more than 34,000 people, the commission estimated that one in ten Dutch children suffered some form of abuse broadly in society. The proportion doubles to 20 per cent for children who spent part of their youth in an institution like an orphanage or boarding school – whether Catholic or not.

Bert Smeets, an abuse victim, said the report did not go far enough in detailing what happened. “What was happening was sexual abuse, violence, spiritual terror, and that should have been investigated,” Mr Smeets said. “It remains vague. All sorts of things happened, but nobody knows exactly what or by whom. This way they avoid responsibility.”

Archbishop Wim Eijk said victims would be compensated by a commission the Dutch church set up last month. He said he felt personally ashamed of the abuse. “It is terrible,” he said.

The Dutch Conference of Religious Orders also apologised, calling the abuse “a dark chapter in the history of religious life”.

“We want to apologsze for these mistakes and we want to never make them again,” the conference said in an open letter to all victims.

The commission said about 800 priests, brothers, pastors or lay people working for the church were named in the complaints. About 105 of them were still alive, although it was not known if they remained in church positions, the report said. It did not release their names and identified them as “perpetrators” rather than “offenders,” meaning they had not been proven to have committed a crime.