Extent of church sexual abuse: a first glimpse

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

By Robert Chesal

Detailed information gathered by Radio Netherlands Worldwide and NRC Handelsblad shows that priests, monks and nuns were involved in sexual and physical abuse at Roman Catholic boarding schools and seminaries across the Netherlands. Several Dutch people who have moved abroad tell RNW they were abused at Roman Catholic institutions in their youth.

Our revelations at the end of February about child sex abuse at the Don Rua monastery in ’s-Heerenberg have so far triggered reactions from nearly 200 former students of various Catholic boarding schools and seminaries. The reactions provide a first impression of the nature and scope of the abuse on a national level. 

A total of 137 priests, monks and nuns are accused of abuse. The alleged culprits were, or are, members of 32 different orders and congregations. Most of them worked at boarding schools and seminaries in the provinces of North Brabant, Limburg and Gelderland. A small number were active in parishes or in youth work. 

Interviews conducted with a large number of victims show that the abuse was systematically covered up. As a result of recent media attention, the Dutch bishops have asked former government minister Wim Deetman to investigate abuse in the Dutch Catholic church. 

Many victims say they have little trust in Hulp en Recht (Assistance and Justice), the church commission charged with investigating abuse cases and providing support to the victims. Some of the 600 people who have submitted their complaints to Hulp en Recht say they subsequently mailed their stories to either RNW or NRC Handelsblad because they believed Hulp en Recht would not take adequate action. 

Peak period
The inventory drawn up by RNW shows that the abuse peaked during the 1950s (43 reports) and the 1960s (62 reports). The substantially lower number of reports pertaining to earlier years may be due to the fact that many victims have since died. The number of reports decreases rapidly after 1960, probably because many boarding schools were then closed.

Abuse led to migration
Among the victims who have contacted us are eleven Dutch people living abroad. So far, RNW has received reports from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Germany(3), Spain, Switzerland, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Uganda. 

One of these victims says the abuse is what made him leave the Netherlands. Richard Wolterman from Australia attended the Hageveld boarding school and seminary in Heemstede from 1968 until 1974. The institution fell under the responsibility of the Haarlem-Amsterdam diocese. Mr Wolterman complains about "inappropriate sexual touching and boundary crossings" by at least three staff members. And he says he was not the only one abused. "A secretive culture of fear" held sway there, he says. "The experience of abuse in such an isolated setting makes you shut up and numb to your own pain. I have not been able to communicate with people without fear up unto age 32 (...) Leaving Holland was one of my ways of coping I guess."

Gerard Weel, a former teacher of Dutch and Religious Education at Hageveld, says he does not recall that atmosphere. “In that period, we tried to deal with sexuality in a more natural way. No cramped attitudes or secretiveness. There was a lay teacher of French who fell in love with one of the boys and they later went to live together, but the affair did not start until the boy turned 17 or 18. It was no secret”.

One of the schools often mentioned in the reports is the Canisius College in Nijmegen, then run by Jesuits. The order has also been discredited in Germany because of abuse at the Canisius grammar school in Berlin. The Saint Louis institution in Amersfoort, run by the Brothers of Maastricht, is mentioned by six former students.

However, the majority of abuse reports involve the Don Bosco Salesians and the Brothers of Charity. The large number of reports can be partly explained by the recent publicity regarding the orders’ boarding schools in ‘s-Heerenberg and Eindhoven.

Internal investigation
A former director who was responsible for the supervision of teacher staff in 's-Heerenberg, is identified by four former students as one of the abusers. The abuse reports from 's-Heerenberg cover a ten-year period. So far, two Salesians have confessed to the abuse in the media. One priest was sent to a convent in Babberich, Germany, after an internal investigation conducted in ‘s-Heerenberg in 1967.

Monks were also dismissed from the Eikenburg boarding school in Eindhoven. Two were admitted to a psychiatric institution, and a third was transferred. Despite the serious nature of their wrongdoing, the police were never alerted. 

Parents guilty of complicity
The large number of reactions received by RNW shows that most of these incidents were covered up. In many cases, parents were complicit in these cover-ups because they feared a scandal. Priests and monks where held in high regard, and pupils who reported abuse were often punished, either at home or at the boarding school. Frank, a former pupil, ran away from a boarding school 13 times. “After the last time my father brought me back to the school and said if I ran away one more time, I would never be allowed to come home again”.