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Thursday 18 December  
Robert Chesal
Robert Chesal's picture
Hilversum, Netherlands
Hilversum, Netherlands

Covering the Catholic sex abuse cover-up

Published on : 16 December 2011 - 1:09pm | By Robert Chesal (Photo: ANP/RNW)
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Roman Catholic bishops in the Netherlands protected sexual abusers and covered up their crimes, according to a major new report released today. The church-installed Deetman Commission says there were up to 20,000 victims of abuse between the end of World War II and 1981.

Radio Netherlands Worldwide journalist Robert Chesal - together with NRC Handelsblad's Joep Dohmen - brought to light the abuse that led to a national scandal. Robert Chesal looks back at how the story unfolded.

You could say that 2010 was the year when the Roman Catholic sex abuse scandal went viral. Until February of that year, abuse of youngsters by Catholic clergy was primarily seen as a problem in Ireland and the United States.

German scandal
But that month, as northern Europe lay buried in snow, a simmering problem began to reach boiling point. Reports from a Catholic boarding school run by Jesuits in the German capital Berlin spoke first of a few, then of a dozen, and then of over a hundred victims of abuse by priests.

One of those reports reached me at the RNW newsroom in mid-February. That same day I read that Pope Benedict XVI had ordered the entire Irish bishops' conference to appear at the Vatican, where they would receive a dressing down for failing to tackle abuse in their dioceses. I decided to investigate what, if anything, had happened in the Netherlands.

On the internet I quickly found a testimony by a man named Janne Geraets, now in his late 50s, who claimed to have been abused at a boarding school in the early 1960s. I arranged to meet him the following day and heard his story of the painful and deeply damaging abuse he suffered at the hands of a Salesian father.

As I walked to the bus stop after that interview, my head still filled with the disturbing images Geraets had described, I started thinking about where to look next.

Disturbing signs
I discovered that there were some worrying trends in the Netherlands which were as yet unreported in the mainstream media. For instance, a prominent Dutch jurist told me why he had stepped down as chairman of the assessment board of the Roman Catholic abuse hotline.

In fact, he said, the entire board had resigned because their recommendations on how to deal with known abusers in the church were repeatedly being ignored by the Dutch bishops.

I was confronted with another ominous sign when I rang up the Protestant counterpart to the Catholic hotline and was told that all cooperation between the Protestant and Catholic centres for abuse notification had ceased years earlier.

The representative I spoke to suspected the reason the partnership had broken down was that the Catholic side “had something to hide”. Another hotline employee lamented the fact that the Catholics showed no interest in a new protocol established by the Protestant abuse notification centre which the Protestants were more than willing to share.

Hotbed of abuse

Spurred on by Janne Geraets' insistence that he was just one of many children abused at his school, I enlisted the help of experienced investigative journalist Joep Dohmen at the NRC Handelsblad newspaper. Together, Dohmen and I pieced together a story that revealed the abuse of three minors by Salesians from the same boarding school.

We also brought to light the fact that one of the most respected bishops in the Netherlands, monsignor Ad van Luyn, had taught at that same school, in close proximity to what later appeared to be a hotbed of sexual abuse.

Our first publication, on 26 February 2010, sparked an avalanche of abuse reports from former boarding school pupils throughout the Netherlands. The Catholic hotline was completely unable to handle the workload and within weeks the first steps were taken to create a commission of inquiry led by former government minister Wim Deetman.

Pope angers Europe
Meanwhile, it was rapidly becoming clear that the Catholic Church had a scandal of epidemic proportions on its hands in Europe. From Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Austria, shocking testimonies of abuse and allegations of church cover-ups were making headlines.

There was an angry reaction when Pope Benedict apologised to churchgoers in Ireland for decades of abuse that went unpunished. Why, the Germans and Dutch asked, should we be treated any differently from Irish victims?

The Vatican never gave a satisfactory answer to that question. On the contrary. A cardinal close to the pope called the scandal “petty gossip” and even some bishops who acknowledged wide-scale abuse blamed it on the freemasons, on homosexuality and on the loosening of society's sexual morals following the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s (a particularly odd fallacy, since so many cases of abuse stem from the 1950s and earlier).

On Good Friday, Pope Benedict's own preacher compared the incrimination of priests in the sex abuse scandal to past examples of persecution of Europe's Jews. Public relations are not exactly a strong point in Rome.

Simonis gaffe
The church in the Netherlands hardly made a better impression. The top Catholic figure here, Cardinal Simonis, left mouths agape when he denied that Dutch church leaders were aware of the wide-scale abuse by priests in their midst.

He chose a historically loaded phrase the Dutch normally use to mock feigned German ignorance of the Nazi concentration camps, saying “Wir haben es nicht gewusst”.

But Simonis' words sounded decidedly hollow when we reported, months later, that he had helped move a pedophile priest from one parish to another, allowing abuse of minors to continue.

Long-term damage
Incidents like these are among the many disconcerting facts that the Deetman Commission had to grapple with in its inquiry. Of the estimated 10,000 to 20,000 victims in institutional care between 1945 and the early 1980s, approximately half were repeatedly subjected to sexual abuse for longer than a year, the commission says.

Personal accounts reveal that the physical and psychological damage caused by such extended periods of victimisation is immense and long-lasting.

The commission singled out Roman Catholic boarding schools, orphanages, seminaries and other institutions, reporting that children there ran a greater risk of being abused. The inquiry blasted the institutions' failure to monitor the well-being of minors in their care.

In a first reaction to the 1,200-page Deetman report, Bishop Gerard de Korte said the church leadership had made wrong choices by protecting abusive priests and putting the reputation of the church before the well-being of victims. It's unlikely to be the last word we hear from the bishops on that sensitive point.

Justice a step closer
Along with many other journalists, I crowded into a meeting room in the Dutch political capital The Hague this morning for the official presentation of the report. Afterwards, colleagues asked me if this was a crowning moment in my career. I had to think about that. And my answer was no. Because I did not become a journalist to hold the Roman Catholic Church accountable for sexual abuse.

I did, however, become a journalist out of some kind of desire for justice and truth. And in that sense, I would have to conclude that with the Deetman Commission report, we've gotten one step closer to that goal.



user avatar
sewage backup 5 March 2012 - 6:43pm

priests are the spreader of Gods wisdom,to his life devotion unto God we trust,owe and respect them,that's why catholic church should protect those abused by a priest and give a negative consequence to their colleague so it won't happen again especially to our kids.

JeannieOutrup 25 December 2011 - 7:42pm / Goebbels and the Pedophile Priest Revelation

It is interesting to note that Josef Goebbels, Hitler's minister of Propaganda released a memo about a vast number of Pedophile Priests in the German and Austrian Catholic Church. This story can be found on the internet: I had heard about this story years before, when I was in high school, before I knew about the Priest Pedophilia Scandal in the Catholic Church, but like the majority of people hearing it, I was sure that it was nothing less than a smear campaign against the Catholic Church. Little did we know that Goebbels comments regarding Priest Pedophiplia were right on the money! It's too bad that Goebbels was listened to on this topic (alone). Had he proven his allegations, hundreds of thousands of children and teen all over the world wouldn't have been victims of Priest Pedophiles!

JeannieOutrup 25 December 2011 - 7:44pm / Bad Typo Error in my comment

I wrote: " It's too bad that Goebbels was listened to on this topic (alone)," I meant to write, "It's too bad that Goebbels was NOT listened to on this topic (alone)."

Michael Tyson 19 December 2011 - 4:38pm / usa

Aren’t there any men with any guts in the Netherlands? This church has 800 child rapists and hundreds of priests and bishops that covered up for them. Why isn’t there a the mob of angry men that goes in there, brings them into the town square, and beats them?

Barrie 17 December 2011 - 6:41am / RSA

The underlying problem of paedophilia in the catholic church is the celibacy enforced on the Church by a a millenium of Popes. That's where the buck stops.

Until the Vatican reverse the heresy of Pope Gregory VII, excommunicating all married priests, and preventing the marriage of Catholic priests - that is the underlying cause of the wave of Catholic Sex Abuse and paedophilia, in particular, that is bringing the Church to its knees.

The alternative? The demise of the Catholic church within the next generation or two. Pray for the Pope, he has an unenviable task convincing the church that for a thousand years they have been wrong. Very very wrong.

JeannieOutrup 25 December 2011 - 7:53pm / The Pope could STOP Priest Pedophilia Overnight!

Barrie: Just let a bishop say that he thinks that women should be ordained and he is taken out of his position, practically overnight! Situation in point is Archbishop Morris of Toowoomba, Australia! The Pope has always been empowered to stop Priest Pedophilia AND the coverups of Pedophilia by bishops, archbishops and cardinals! Why hasn't he: Because he doesn't want SCANDAL brought to the footsteps of the Vatican. Also, if every Pedophile Priest and bishop, who covered up for them, were taken out of service, there would be far, fewer priests and hardly any bishops to run the Church. Bishops are "Yes Men!" The Vatican has told our bishops, archbishops and cardinals to coverup instances of Priest and Nun Pedophilia for centuries, and that is exactly what they've done. Now, for the Pope to do anything, he'd need to implicate himself as being guilty, and every Pope before him!

Patrick OMalley 19 December 2011 - 4:41pm / United States

No, it isn't. The problem is that priests are guys that are socially and psychologically unstable anyways, deciding at age 18 that they will never have sex. Then they are put around children, and are given no limits. Then they are given the concept of Catholic confession, which enables them to commit any crime and be forgiven in 5 minutes.

Throw every one of them in jail and the world will get better.

Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh 17 December 2011 - 6:28am / United States of America

Thank you for this excellent article. I am a Catholic physician. I have met many who have been sexually abused by Roman Catholic priests.

Also, I was sexually assaulted by a Carmelite priest years ago. Before that experience, I did not believe that there were priests who would sexually abuse anyone. Now I know that the sexual abuse of innocent children by some priests and bishops and nuns has been occurring for many years, maybe even centuries, with no accountability.

According to, there have been at least 19 bishops who have been abusers in the USA.

Pope Benedict XVI and other members of the hierarchy must be made accountable for their complicity in allowing clergy sexual abuse to flourish worldwide.

Sincerely, Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Johnny 17 December 2011 - 2:17am

This is way too many to make the story credible. I mean, if it were a few abuses like in many other big institutions or organizations then fine, but this many ? Sorry I find it hard to believe, who are these priests if it's true, Catholic they are NOT!

gsw 27 December 2011 - 1:55pm

Catholic = broad or wide-ranging in tastes, interests, or the like; having sympathies with all; broad-minded; liberal.
So sorry, but yes they are.

Ratzinger was involved in a scandal back before he took up his current condition. The denial that any of it could be true was enormous then as well.
People suspected that the children were making it up to "get back at" priests for being too strict with them.
The church jumped on this explanation and claimed that the priests were perhaps a little too strict and there was a shuffle.
Hard to find any reports, most records of Ratzinger's bio seem to have been cleaned pretty well.

Patrick OMalley 19 December 2011 - 4:43pm / usa

Hey, Johnny, don't ever leave the house. You are dangerous.

JeannieOutrup 25 December 2011 - 7:57pm / Maybe Johnny should spend more time in Church!

Maybe Johnny should spend more time in Church, and get to know his priests a little better. Maybe he should talk to a few of the thousands of adults, who were abused, raped or sodomized as children by Pedophile Priests and Nuns. Or, maybe on second thought Johnny should stay in doors, so he won't be disillusioned by what he'd find!

Vera Gottlieb 16 December 2011 - 9:14pm / Germany

Never ending.

1Yellowknife 16 December 2011 - 3:45pm / Canada

Dutch version much better written. If this was written in English and then translated into Dutch (and this appears to be the case), the translator deserves a paycheque bonus.

Anonymous 16 December 2011 - 1:23pm

This is true journalism-all are proud of you...hope the victime get justice ..

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