In the years 2011-2018, 3,712 victims of sexual abuse in The Netherlands came forward and shared their stories of suffering. Complaints were submitted by 2,060 of them, 1,002 were acknowledged. Over 27 million euros have been paid out in financial compensation. The Bishops’ Conference and the Conference of Religious Orders have worked together over the past years to shed light on the past and avoid the reiteration of the crimes in the future through stringent, independent procedures and structures. The bishop of Rotterdam, Msgr. Hans van den Hende, attending the Vatican meeting in his capacities as President of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference, described the Dutch model to SIR.
What do you expect from the meeting?
Over the years we received many messages and news on events taking place at national level, but it’s very important to face the problem of abuse at the global Church and this is happening for the first time. I expect a response accompanied by concrete steps. From the program it’s clear that also the Pope wants us to pray together: relationship with God is of great involvement in this difficult issue and we must ask forgiveness for this. I expect there will also be an opportunity to share our results with our confreres in the groups.
The Pope has suggested to tone down expectations, but there is high media attention …
People expect us to listen to the victims, and in the coming weeks abuse survivors will be heard and recognized all over the world; they expect us to address the problem. In our Country, at the request of the Conference of Bishops and of the Conference of Deutch Religious, the former spekear for the Lower House Wim Deetman conducted an important independent investigation, on the basis of which he identified
three elements implied in the risk of abuse: power roles, situations of dependence from people in positions of power, situations of isolation that prevented people from speaking of their past experience. Identifying these three aspects was important to us and I believe they are valid for the whole Church to understand the reasons why the abuse occurred so many times.
Did the measures you adopted in The Netherlands in the past years serve to solve the problem?
Stories of abuse started to surface in 2010. Other Countries had already acknowledged similar episodes but in our Country it was unprecedented, and as a bishop I myself was unaware of this dramatic problem. Thus the bishops and the religious together started to conduct this investigation that revealed that this was a reality inside the Church for decades and that it was important to give people the opportunity to tell their stories, to be listened to and to also to receive financial compensation. I think that in some respects the outcome was good: we are now aware of the problem, we identified the risk factors and we have been able to listen to the people involved in the episodes of abuse.
Will it prevent it from never happening again?
Situations of past abuse no longer exist: we have no more orphanages, large boarding schools, but naturally abuses could still occur in parishes and that’s why we created a prevention system. There is a national code of pastoral conduct recognized by the bishops and by institutions of religious that is applied also to the laity involved in all parish activities, from catechesis to administrative roles.
Whoever has an appointment inside the Church must also have a certificate released by State authorities affirming that that person’s past is clear of dubious behaviours.
Those arriving from other dioceses or congregations or Countries, must have a statement from the bishop certifying the absence of risks, prior to taking office. Finally, we launched a new “Centre for the identification of cases of abuse”, because the work of the “Victim Support Platform”, of the “Reporting Centre” and the “Compensation Committee” established in 2011 had worked on past cases and had completed their assignment. These are the four pillars of our prevention system.
Have there been no new complaints in the past five years?
For the time being we can say that there have been no reports of cases of abuse on minors.
What happens in that case?
People file the complaint to the Centre that in turn informs the bishop or the Superior and then we start the procedure. The bishop accompanies the procedure but does not guide it, because it is coordinated by the independent Centre. Once the conclusions are drawn the bishop is tasked with taking action. In cases of abuse on minors, which is a crime, the procedure is transmitted to the judicial authorities, with no possibility of derogation.
Have you met the victims before your arrival here?
Not in the past weeks, but over the years, every time a case of my diocese was presented to the independent Committee I participated in numerous sessions with the victims. It happened more than twenty times. I also met with victims who wished to share their story without filing a procedure of complaint and I was also involved in the “Contact Commission” to help the victims whenever for some reason their procedure was stalled.
I met people who are more or less my age: I am 55 and most cases of abuse occurred in the past. This made it possible for some of them to speak out in a different way, with a more personal approach, because in their eyes I did not represent the past but the present of the Church.
How have these meetings affected you personally?
I had no idea of the existence of situations abuse nor the dimensions of this problem. Today I am aware of all this and it’s clear that I must make sure that prevention takes place at all costs and in the best possible way. I also suffered feelings of deep shame because this terrible injustice is the exact opposite of what the Gospel says to us. It was a great disappointment to realize that there are those who proclaim the Gospel but then behave in the opposite way.
Is it a great humiliation for the Church?
Indeed, the Church is hurting, but people especially have been hurt. The reaction must be compassion without considering one’s feelings or self-image. The loss of self-confidence, the pain and the loss of faith of the victims must have a central role. Our feelings must be compassion, readiness to recognize the will to work for prevention.
What is the lesson to be learnt from episodes of abuse with regard to priestly formation?
From a scientific perspective there is no relationship between celibacy and abuse: abuse occurs also in many families.
The key aspect is personal maturity and making a conscious choice.
For the youths preparing to enter the priesthood and consecrated life it’s important that their path of formation starts with the formation of the person.
To what extent did the scandal of abuse affect religious affiliation to the Church in The Netherlands?
The Netherlands is a secularized society; 51% of the overall population are not religious and faith is under pressure. The Report on abuse could have reconfirmed people’s detachment from the religious sphere. The number of people leaving the Church are imprecise when compared to the scandals, considering that among the Catholic population (24% of the overall population), 5-6% attend Sunday Mass and less than 40% of all faithful give economic support to the Church (The Netherlands lacks an organized system comparable to the Italian one, there are only voluntary contributions).
How can the faith of the survivors be healed?
It’s difficult. For the most part the people I have met had stopped believing in God, also because the stories of abuse dated back to many years earlier. As a bishop and as Church I can only do everything possible to respond to the complaints, to solve the problem, but I have no possibility to induce forgiveness, to recover faith and personal integrity. These decisions are in the hands of the people who have been hurt.
Has the Dutch model been replicated?
Not as far as I know. Perhaps it will happen after this meeting. But I don’t want to flaunt our achievements. The core of the matter is compassion and helping people in the best possible way so they may recover confidence, religious belief, sense of belonging to a community. The unique feature of this model is that the bishops and the Conference of Religious have worked together since the beginning to complete this process, which is something I have not seen in other Countries. We wanted to clearly convey our shared responsibilities in our response. It’s not a question of having matured experience inside a diocese, or in a given congregation. In our small Country we follow the same procedures, with the same determination in addressing this issue.