“One of the brothers was a sadist. He beat me with a wooden stick on my bare bottom until I bled. While he was doing it I had to shout: Happy Easter! Happy Easter!”
The child welfare office took Pieter Dekkers (69) from his parents when he was five. Until he was nineteen he lived at the St Willibrordus Boarding School in Breda, a Roman Catholic home for children.
Outgoing ministers André Rouvoet (Youth and Family) and Ernst Hirsch Ballin (Justice) have announced that an investigation will be held into whether children were abused at such homes in the second half of the last century.
One of the reasons for the investigation were reports by RTL Nieuws that abuse had been committed on a wide scale at a boarding school in Tilburg. At the beginning of March, lawyers told the newspaper NRC Handelsblad that the government could be legally liable for the alleged abuse if it could be demonstrated that the supervision of the Child Welfare Council had been negligent.
Lack of love
Mr Dekkers says that members of the Congregation of the Brothers of Huijbergen, who ran the Willibrordus Boarding School, also sexually abused children who had been taken from their homes because of extreme poverty. “However, in retrospect, what I found was the worst of all was the total absence of love. I would have been better off in that dump of a home, because at least I would have received some sort of affection.
He says there was no decent supervision of the care the children received. “The Dutch authorities share in the responsibility for the beastly behaviour at boarding schools at the time. The term child welfare gives me a near cardiac arrest.”
Mr Dekkers’ story is only one of many. The government entrusted tens of thousands of boys and girls to religious and secular boarding homes in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Loet van Hoogenhuizen (69) was also in the care of the Congregation of the Brothers of Huijbergen, where he stayed until he was twelve. His story is much the same as Pieter Dekkers’. “You stayed there for years without being able to go home, from a very young age. You were at the mercy of the lay-brothers, priests and nuns.”
Mr Dekkers: “The atmosphere was bad. You did not receive attention or love. There was a lot of cruelty and humiliation. Brother O. always called us ‘dirty, filthy dogs’.” When he was 13 Pieter Dekkers was also sexually abused by the brother who supervised his wing. Mr Van Hoogerhuizen: “We were just dumped there. They could do whatever they pleased with us.”
Mr Dekkers is now living in Thailand. On the phone he is enthusiastic when told about the recently announced investigation by the government. Mr Van Hoogenhuizen is also happy about the inquiry. “It is great news. Especially the fact that it will be conducted by a neutral party and not by the bishops.”
The investigation announced by ministers Rouvoet and Hirsch Ballin will also look into whether the Child Welfare Council, or its predecessor, the Guardianship Board, was aware of the abuse. If so, it will investigate what was done with this knowledge.
The government investigation is running parallel with an inquiry headed by Wim Deetman – former Christian Democrat education minister and ex-mayor of The Hague - which was organised by the Roman Catholic bishops in the Netherlands.
Abuse is a common theme in the testimonies of the countless witnesses who have come forward. The atmosphere in institutions and children’s homes where boys and girls were sent by legal order was much more closed than that in ‘normal’ religious boarding schools and seminaries. There was little, if any, government supervision.
Abuse of power
One of the witnesses is Frans Houben (64) from Ootmarsum. His youth was spent in Huize St Joseph in Cadier en Keer, which was run by the Fathers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Béttharam. Mr Houben says that in the twelve years he spent there the child welfare council was totally absent. He says that during the entire period he spent there “someone put in an appearance once”.
The child welfare council placed orphans and boys from problem homes at the Cadier en Keer boarding school. Houben’s father was a member of the National Socialist Movement in the Netherlands (NSB), the Dutch Fascist party which collaborated with the Germans. His mother could not, or would not, look after him. He recently published a book about his childhood memories in which he described abuse of power and sexual abuse at the boy’s boarding school. “The book is also a condemnation of the child welfare office, which did not intervene.”
Another victim of St Joseph is Piet Rietveld (57), who now lives in Groningen. He lived at the boarding school from 1962 until 1966. He describes how he was sadistically beaten and abused in the isolation cells in the basement, where he was locked up for long periods.
Mr Rietveld also never noticed any sort of supervision by the child welfare office. “If they came, then it was never further than the room of the priest who ran the school. We never saw them. If only they had been there, then they would have seen how I was covered with bruises.”
The Child Welfare Council refused to comment. A spokesperson said: “We are awaiting the investigation announced by the ministers.”