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A dormitory at the Salesian Fathers of Don Bosco boarding school in 's-Heerenberg. Photo courtesy of St. Agatha, Erfgoedcentrum Nederlands Kloosterleven
Amid the high-profile child sexual abuse scandals in the United States and other European countries, the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands has remained unsullied. A joint investigation by NRC Handelsblad and Radio Netherlands Worldwide shows this is unjustified.
By Robert Chesal for Radio Netherlands Worldwide and Joep Dohmen for NRC Handelsblad
Janne Geraets, now 57, suffered repeated sexual abuse from the age of 11 at the hands of a priest at the Roman Catholic school where he was a boarder. His ordeal began in 1964, at the Don Rua monastery in the town of 's-Heerenberg in the east of the Netherlands. He was being trained by the Salesian Fathers of Don Bosco, in the hope of one day becoming a missionary. After a party, one of the priests lured Janne to the infirmary under the pretext of giving him medicine to ease his sore throat. "All of a sudden he was right up against me," Geraets recalled. "He unzipped his trousers and forced my hand inside. I was in a state of utter confusion."
After the incident, Geraets returned to bed. But the next morning he was summoned by the same priest. "I remember how my heart was pounding as I knocked on the door. He opened it and said 'That should never have happened'. He gave me absolution; he pardoned my sin. That confused me even more."
'The dirty one'
Janne Geraets was called to that same room again and again. "He would lie on his couch and put me on top of him, riding back and forth. I remember a knock at the door on one occasion. I tried to scream, but no sound came out. I wanted to yell 'this isn’t right, this isn ’t allowed'. But there was no one to turn to. You’re too afraid to say anything. You think you are the dirty one and that they’ll throw you out of school."
At the boarding school in ’s-Heerenberg, 80 to 100 boys between the ages of 12 and 18 slept in four large dormitories. "Sometimes you knew for sure: there’s something going on between that boy and that priest," said Geraets. It happened on a large scale. Several of the priests were involved. Some priests were more popular than others. You could tell because more boys visited them." The priest who abused him is now 98 years old. "Everything I held sacred turned out to be a facade," said Geraets. "It was a huge blow to my self-confidence."
'Too little, too late'
Sexual abuse of children by priests has been brought to light in a number of countries, but the recent apologies from the Vatican are “too little too late”, said Yvo van Kuijck. He is the former chairman of the independent Assessment and Advisory Committee which cooperates with the Netherlands’ hotline for reporting sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Since it was set up in 1995, the hotline has received almost 300 reports of sexual abuse. “It has taken too long for the Church to apologise and take action," van Kuijck said. "The Dutch bishops adopted the same ‘wait and see’ approach. I didn’t get the impression that dealing with sexual abuse was a priority for them."
Two years ago, dissatisfied with the attitude taken by the Dutch bishops, Kuijck resigned along with his entire committee, because they learned priests guilty of abuse in one parish were simply transferred to another parish where they were free to find new victims. "Not only is that unprofessional, it’s inconceivable," said Van Kuijck, who is now vice-president of the district court in Arnhem.
Girls as well as boys
Leonie Cramwinckel-Bloch was 15 years old and in her fourth year at secondary school in Doetinchem when she went on a school skiing trip. Her class was supervised by the English teacher, another Salesian father from the nearby monastery in 's-Heerenberg. It was December 1970. Leonie, who is now 54, said the priest sexually assaulted her, fondling her genitals on more than one occasion. She didn ’t dare tell anyone. "But I knew that he was wrong," she said. "Looking back, I was surprised by how easy and self-evident it was for him. That made me realise that it couldn ’t have been the first time." Back at school, she steered clear of the priest and only told her parents a few years later. The priest in question is now dead.
There were other cases of abuse outside the monastery. Another Salesian father, now 72, taught math in ’s-Heerenberg during the 1960s. He later became a parish priest, but in 1994, the archbishop of Utrecht suspended him following accusations of sexual harassment involving a young boy.
In a response, the priest said that there was little substance to the accusations. "We were in the sauna at a sports centre. The boy saw me naked. Nothing more. A man sitting next to me had an erection. But I didn’t touch the boy. It was a long time ago. I don’t think it’s right to stir all this up again," he said.
Wim Flapper, former provincial head of the Salesians of Don Bosco, admitted that the order did not try to get to the bottom of this incident. “He received psychotherapy," he said of the priest. "We took care of that. But we did not investigate whether there were other victims.”
Cause for investigation
Now that three priests from the same institution have been subject to accusations, Yvo van Kuijck sees cause for further investigation. Although it is no longer his responsibility, he believes it is in the interests of the church to look into the matter. "If it’s a structural problem at an institution, then there is every reason to take a good look at what’s going on."
Johan Marsman, now 68, ran the farm for the Salesians in ’s-Heerenberg during the 1960s. He has written a book about the Don Rua monastery. He is aware that the priests had relationships with the boys. "Under the previous head, Wim Flapper, nearly 15 years ago, a meeting was organised for former students and the abuse was discussed. He expressed his regret and conceded that mistakes had been made," Marsman said. According to him most of the former students no longer want to talk about the incidents. He himself left the monastery in 1968.
When asked whether the priests at Don Rua had relationships with ‘favourite boys’, Johan Marsman nodded and said: "Yes, I've heard that". He added that the situation at Don Rua was not unique. "It happened everywhere, especially at the boarding schools. But it cannot be excused. "
Trail to the top
In the period that Janne Geraets was abused at the Don Rua school, the current bishop of Rotterdam, Ad van Luyn, was working there as a teacher. In the 1970s, Van Luyn was provincial head of the Salesians. Since 2008 he has chaired the Netherlands' Synod of Bishops.
Ad van Luyn declined to discuss "past issues". Through a spokesman, he said that "matters relating to the congregation are the responsibility of the current father superior, even if they relate to previous governors".
Father Herman Spronck, currently the most senior Salesian in the Netherlands, denies all knowledge of abuse in 's-Heerenberg, and refers all inquiries to his predecessors. He is not opposed to an investigation and is keen to emphasize that sexual abuse goes against the vow taken by the fathers of Don Bosco. “At Don Bosco, the inviolable sanctity of youth is key to our system of education.”
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