Those investigating child sex abuse within the Dutch Roman Catholic Church are facing an enormous job which is increasing by the day. Complaints are flooding in from around the country following initial revelations made by Radio Netherlands Worldwide and the NRC Handelsblad newspaper.
The first reports of abuse came from a boarding school in the eastern town of 's-Heerenberg - now allegations have been made involving Roman Catholic institutions across the Netherlands.
One of these was an expensive boarding school for the children of diplomats and the wealthy at Eikenburg near the southern city of Eindhoven.
Robert Chesal reports:
Dolf was ten years old when he was abused the first time at the Eikenburg boarding school. It happened shortly after he arrived and he says the perpetrator was his group leader, a Roman Catholic brother.
"After a few weeks, I was woken up one night. The brother took me out of the dormitory. I had to get down on my knees and he put 15 blankets over me. I sat there sweating for 45 minutes. Then I had to satisfy him. That happened was every week for a year. I had to do it in every way possible. I was a child and I didn't know what I was doing."
Eikenburg, located in beautiful woods near Eindhoven was one of the most expensive boarding schools in the Netherlands. Dolf, now 63, attended the school from late 1956 until 1958. He describes the brother as a large, coarse and aggressive man who demanded military precision from the boys.
He used to rip the blankets from the beds to make sure that the sheets had been tucked in properly and meted out the same kind of terrifying discipline in the dining room.
Brothers of Charity
The Brothers of Charity taught around 350 students in the boarding school’s 19th-century chapel and annexes. The order, which has branches throughout the world, is devoted to helping the poor, caring for the ill and to Christian charity.
However, the brothers enforced an extremely strict regime for the boys at Eikenburg. The instructors would hand out blue cards to boys who misbehaved, which meant they could not visit their home at the weekend. Dolf says the brother exploited the situation. "He tried to rape me. He was so big and strong. His hands were all over my face".
Since his parents were abroad, Dolf usually visited relatives during the weekend. His father was a diplomat. He was lonely, did not feel safe and was homesick. “My parents were far away. I had nobody to turn to.” Because the brothers checked all mail it was not possible to mention the abuse in a letter.
The Brothers of Charity’s regional superior, Ton van Heugten (74) at first refused to answer questions about the accusations. “I know about it. But I am not going to discuss it.” When asked about Dolf’s version of events. “I know about it. But I don’t know if something actually happened.”
Van Heugten says that the brother in question had been confined to a psychiatric institution. “There they diagnosed him as needing psychiatric care.” There was never an investigation into whether any of the boys had been a victim of possible acts by the brother.
An investigation by Radio Netherlands Worldwide and NRC Handelsblad into child abuse at boarding schools and seminaries reveals that a great deal of hidden suffering took place near the shady lanes of the Eikenburg boarding school. Of the more than one hundred cases investigated during the past two weeks, eleven took place in one school alone – Eikenburg.
Eleven former pupils describe how they and others were repeatedly abused and beaten. The events described allegedly took place between 1956 and 1983. The former pupils accuse nine Catholic brothers and one lay brother. More than fifty brothers worked at the boarding school on average.
Not all the pupils came from wealthy families. Henk Overdevest and his two brothers, sons of a bulb grower from North Holland, attended Eikenburg in 1968. Henk says his mother was emotionally unstable and did not have the ability to deal with her children, whom she often beat. Due to the dangerous situation at home he was sent to Eikenburg to attend the sixth grade of elementary school.
The troubles started immediately after his arrival. The group of new pupils was walking up the steps when one of the boys said something cheeky. One of the brothers “gave him a really hard blow to his head. The boy fell down the stone steps and landed with a smack on the pavement. Nobody helped him. The boy picked himself up. He was crying really hard of course.”
The cruelty was allegedly of a sexual nature as well. The boys who stayed during the weekend were the ones who experienced the alleged abuse most often.
Mr Overdevest: “We were playing billiards one Saturday afternoon. A boy was about to play a shot with his cue when the same brother walked up behind him. He pressed the boy against the billiard table and began to wildly rub against him.” Nobody else did anything because they were afraid of reprisals.
Henk befriended one of the supervisors, a lay brother of around 19 years of age. The supervisor invited Henk to his room to talk. “We chatted until late in the evening, with the radio on, and he gave me a sweet glass of liqueur.” The lay brother was preparing to make a sexual advance.
“At night I was asleep in bed and I woke up. Someone was touching my penis. I pushed him away.”
The supervisor tried it again another time, but this time more aggressively. Henk pushed him away.
“A short time later I heard a boy with a loud voice shouting somewhere else in the dormitory, “Shove off. Keep your hands off me!” His parents arrived the next day and the lay brother was fired immediately.”
Dolf and Henk’s accusations are just two examples of a structural pattern. Reports by other former pupils show that it is highly likely that pupils were frequently abused during the 1960s and 70s.
A former pupil who complained to Superior Van Heugten about abuse years ago looks back in anger. “He said that my story could not possibly be true.” Recently the former pupil received a letter from Van Heugten which included the cautious phrase: “We would greatly regret it if an incident had ever occurred at our institution.”
Some time before the school closed its doors in 1996, girls were admitted as well. Each pupil had his or her own room. Although the atmosphere was less strict, there were still instances of abuse. A woman (42) from Deurne, near Eindhoven, says a brother began to abuse her in 1980, when she was 13, until 1983. Because she is married and has two children she wants to remain anonymous. The brother said he wanted to comfort her because she was homesick. However, they ended up having sex.
When her father found out and threatened to call the police the man was transferred to another boarding school run by the Brothers of Charity, St Jozef in Roermond. Today he is one of the four members of the board of the Brothers of Charity in the Netherlands.
The Brothers of Charity still reside in Eikenburg. Regional father superior Van Heugten at first refused to discuss the accusation. However, in a second telephone conversation he admitted that the board member “had something to do with that girl”. He says the brother “sat here crying and confessed”.
The first Roman Catholic institution to face an investigation into charges of sexual abuse was the Don Rua monastery in ‘s-Heerenberg. Now it seems that widespread abuse occurred at the Eikenberg boarding school as well. In view of the many complaints which are being sent to Hulp & Recht (Help & Justice), a Roman Catholic organisation dedicated to fighting sexual abuse, more institutions will probably follow. The Netherlands can now join the growing number of countries where past cases of widespread sexual abuse at religious institutions are coming into the limelight after having long been ignored.