Serious abuses went on unreported for years in Dutch Roman Catholic homes for the mentally disabled. They included sex offences, castration, secret medical experiments and possibly murder. One Catholic brother was banished to Africa for doing unethical brain research. Radio Netherlands Worldwide tracked him down.
Until recent years, most abuses in Dutch institutional care were kept out of the public eye. One exception was a scandal in 1978 involving medical experiments at 'Huize Assisië’, a Roman Catholic boarding school for mentally handicapped boys in the southern town of Udenhout.
The home's medical doctor and a Catholic nurse known as Brother Dionysius performed spinal taps on approximately 180 patients, including minors. They injected fluid and air into the patients' brains in order to take x-rays of the cerebral cortex. These were used for brain research which was quietly being carried out. After the injections, the patients suffered nausea and headaches for days. Their parents were neither asked for permission nor notified of the procedures.
Sent to Africa
When former employees blew the whistle, the doctor was sacked and ordered to pay a fine. Brother Dionysius was sent to Tanzania by his congregation. The case was discussed in the Dutch parliament, where MPs complained that the health inspector had given private institutions such as Huize Assisië a free hand.
Radio Netherlands Worldwide has discovered that Brother Dionysius is still working as a hospital nurse in the Tanzanian village of Sengerema, near Lake Victoria. Speaking to RNW by telephone, the 76-year-old brother said he had done "nothing untoward".
"What we did was happening at other institutions too," he said. "As the x-ray technician, I was carrying out the doctor's orders. It was none of my business whether the parents knew. I was fired after the story got out, but that was just to put a stop to all the fuss."
It was a rare example of institutional abuse becoming public knowledge. More often than not, such cases are swept under the rug where they remain for decades. But lately, some lurid secrets have come out in the open.
In a Dutch TV investigation, a former head nurse at 'Huize Sint Joseph’, a Catholic home for mentally disabled boys, alleged that one of his predecessors had fatally poisoned at least 20 patients in the early 1950s. The story caused ripples well beyond Heel, the small southern Dutch village where the institution has stood proud since the 19th century.
Aside from alleged multiple murders, the media have revealed that there was both sexual and physical abuse at Huize Sint Joseph. The latest news dug up by investigative reporters: a rector at the home was convicted of indecent assault of minors in 1967. Two nurses who reported him were sacked and ordered to remain silent. Following his conviction, the rector requested a pardon so he could remain employed at a vocational school where he held a job as a teacher of Child Protection. The judge refused and gave him a short prison sentence.
Several people who formerly lived in Huize Sint Joseph say the Catholic brothers often beat the children in their care and locked them up in solitary confinement. Historian Annemieke Klijn wrote about the violence in a book about the home. She described the many forms of restraint and coercion the brothers used, including "a perhaps somewhat unrestrained smack".
Dr Klijn describes Huize Sint Joseph as an institution where many religious men worked with great dedication, but where the quality of care had grave faults. This was partly due to overcrowding and a lack of well-trained personnel.
Like many Roman Catholic care facilities in its day, it suffered from a lack of funds. Catholic homes for the disabled also resisted outside attempts to impose training to professionalize the quality of care. It is not known how widespread similar abuses to those at Huize Sint Joseph were at other Catholic care institutions.
A practice which was fairly widespread but not widely publicized until recent years was the chemical castration of patients. One of the institutions where this took place was the Sint Willibrordus home, a Catholic facility for the mentally ill in the Dutch town of Heiloo, north of Amsterdam. Among those castrated were priests who had committed sexual offences and seminary students who were thought unable to keep their libido in check.
So far, there appears to be little interest in a wide-ranging inquiry into abuses in Roman Catholic care for the mentally disabled. Member of the Upper House and medical ethics expert Heleen Dupuis questions the need for an inquiry. Dr Dupuis, who chairs the main Dutch trade organisation for providers of care to the disabled, says anyone found guilty of abuse must be punished. But she prefers to emphasize how much Dutch care has improved since decades past when so many abuses took place. "Thank God we no longer live in those times," she says.