Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Dutch Church Promises Full Abuse Investigation

Reports by Dutch media about sexual abuse from the 1950s through the 1970s have prompted a wave of new allegations against the Catholic Church in the Netherlands.

The church is promising an "independent, open and transparent" investigation into allegations of widespread abuse of children by priests at Catholic boarding schools across Holland.

Dutch musician Bert Smeets, lead singer for the band Bedroom Monkeys, says he was one of the sexually abused at a boarding school in the early 1960s.

He sips black tea outside the 12th century Our Sweet Lady cathedral in Maastricht, one of the oldest Catholic churches in the Netherlands -- and a place Smeets hasn't stepped foot in for years.

He recalls running to one of the head priests at his school and telling him what happened. Smeets says that priest promptly beat him severely and told him he was lying.

“They made me believe I was making it up," he says. "I was 10 years old. I was really shocked. Nobody was allowed to talk to me. I wasn't allowed to talk to anybody. It gets really isolating. That was very hard."

Diving Into Music, Writing

The abusive priest repeatedly violated him, Smeets says. In his teen years, he tried to channel his confusion and rage into music and writing songs -- like "Answer, No Answer," which he penned at 14.

“I felt very lost,” Smeets says. “There [were] questions, and I was asking for help in this song. But I didn't realize what really was the meaning of it, at that time. I just sang it."

Now 58, Smeets launched a blog, Mea Culpa, to bring Dutch victims together. So far, he's received more than 1,000 e-mails and phone calls from people in the Netherlands who say they, too, were abused by priests. His efforts were helped by recent reports on Radio Netherlands and in a Dutch newspaper that detailed similar sexual abuse at Dutch boarding schools in the 1950s, '60s and '70s.

Another Case

Janne Geraets says he was molested at a Catholic boarding school in the early '60s. Geraets was an altar boy then, and he says he wanted to become a missionary. All that collapsed after a priest sexually attacked him in his room and then again in the school's chapel, he says.

"When I was abused, it was against the altar," he says. "The priest was riding up to me, and then you are standing with your back to the altar. And that is holy, you are praying there. As an altar boy you see the father, you see the cross and think about God. And afterwards, all that was holy and sacred, yeah, suddenly it fell down."

Geraets says he talked about the abuse years earlier, and that this is not the first time he is coming out about it.

"I always talked about it everywhere, all around," he says. "But you were never heard. This of course is the problem. You never get through."

Geraets and other victims are now getting through -- and the flood of new abuse allegations seems to have taken the Catholic Church here by surprise. Dutch Catholics, about a quarter of Holland's population, have arguably been the most proactive about priest abuse in all of Europe.

Taking Action

Peter Kohnen with the Catholic Bishops Conference there notes that 15 years ago the church set up a nationwide hotline where victims could report abuse and seek help.

"[It was] the first church province in the world that had a stable office for these cases," he says. "So, we thought we had the idea that we were coping with the problem already. We were very, very surprised that these reactions came to surface so suddenly and so massively."

Kohnen believes the Netherlands church deserves credit for again taking quick and firm action. Bishops quickly asked a Protestant former head of the Dutch parliament to lead a full investigation.

"The bishops came forward with so strongly a statement of sorrow, of pity, of apologies and direct reaction of an independent investigation that this black page in the Dutch church history has to be confronted and faced to get on. To get on with the life of the victims, but also the life of the church," Kohnen says.

But many victims, including Geraets and Smeets, question whether the investigation will be sufficient or independent. Smeets wants to see a truly independent investigation, one that could look at the archives of the Dutch Catholic Church.

"The problem is a sex crime in one institute. And particularly in this institute it was covered up. They know they had a problem. That's why they have the archives,” Smeets says. "They have the information. Put it on the Internet. Put it on the table!”

The last Dutch Catholic boarding school was closed in 1981. But victims such as Smeets and Geraets say it is never too late for justice.

Both are part of a pending group lawsuit that seeks financial compensation -- and answers.


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