Recognition for the work of journalists, and recognition for the thousands of victims of church sex abuse. This is how Radio Netherlands Worldwide reporter Robert Chesal characterised the 2010 Journalist of the Year Award. Robert Chesal and his colleague Joep Dohmen from the newspaper NRC Handelsblad received the award from the hands of Culture Minister Marja van Bijsterveldt.
The annual prize is awarded by the editorial staff of the Journalists’ magazine Villamedia Magazine. Robert Chesal and Joep Dohmen were honoured for their series of publications on sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church; publications preceded by months of investigative journalism.
One revelation after another
Reports about church sex abuse had surfaced years earlier in Ireland, the United States and Germany, but everything remained quiet in the Netherlands, until Robert Chesal called up Joep Dohmen following an interview about abuse at a boarding school. Robert put the right journalistic question: “Was this man’s report an incident or symptomatic of a much wider problem?” Their collaboration led to a stream of publications featuring one revelation after another and eventually gave rise to the creation of the Deetman Commission which was charged with investigation the reports.
Did it take too long?
At the award ceremony in The Hague press centre Nieuwspoort, the two laureates both asked their fellow journalists whether it had not taken too long for the issue to be addressed. In his acceptance speech, Joep Dohmen mentioned that there had been some reports on church sex abuse before his collaboration with Robert Chesal, but they had never led to a torrent of revelations. Joep Dohmen himself had published a report on the issue as early as 2002, but did not pay any attention to the boarding schools, while that was where the abuse was most widespread.
Better late than never
The abuse stories only grew into a media storm because large numbers of victims were willing to testify. And also because the church had public opinion going against it, mainly because shortly before priests had refused to give the consecrated host to gay believers. “When shortly afterward it became known that priests had been involved in child sex abuse, and that their crimes were covered up by the church leadership, all hell broke loose.” However, Robert Chesal had to agree: better late than never. ‘At least now there is a chance that those victims who are still alive will see justice done.”