THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Almost 2,000 people have declared themselves victims of sexual and physical abuse while they were minors in the care of the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands, an independent commission said on Thursday.
The investigation into abuses dating back to 1945 shows that the Netherlands ranks worst behind only Ireland in a scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church in Europe and the United States. It has also forced Pope Benedict to apologize to victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests.
The church-appointed commission’s findings were requested by the Dutch bishops’ conference after cases surfaced involving pedophile priests in the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, Germany, Australia, Canada and the United States.
“I am very respectful of the people who came forward because declaring yourself a victim is a big step,” said Wim Deetman, a Protestant former education minister and former mayor of The Hague who heads the commission.
Asked whether the report could lead to pressure for a shake-up in the church hierarchy, Deetman said: “It is too soon to say that. We will see that at the end of next year after discussions with a lot of people. But the bishops conference has asked us to look at managerial responsibilities.”
The report, a preliminary study of the scandals, said the Church had not done enough to help victims and urged it to set up an effective system of compensation, a special organization to assist victims and Church disciplinary action if needed.
Leaders of the Catholic group Help and Justice, which has so far handled abuse cases reported to the Church, offered to step down after the report said it was “not a help organization.”
The Dutch Church and Conference of Religious Orders thanked Deetman for the report and said “the number of reports requires a (further) thorough investigation” that they would cooperate fully. They asked Deetman to continue with his inquiries.
The commission will follow up at the end of 2011 to see whether its recommendations have been implemented. “We have a list of perpetrators and we are in talks with some of them,” Deetman added.
Deetman said Church organizations had waited too long to come up with a professional approach to complaints about abuse.
“We want to regain trust and do justice to the victims. The question whether a case has expired (for purposes of legal action) or not should not be a guiding principle,” he said.
Deetman said his commission had informed the public prosecutor about a handful of cases.
Some Dutch cases have already gone to court, for example in the southwest town of Middelburg where a victim, now 34, is seeking financial compensation from a former priest, now 88.
Last month, the Salesian order of Dutch Catholic priests admitted to paying hush money to a victim of sexual abuse.
Victims in countries including Ireland, Austria, Italy and the pope’s native Germany came forward this year. Bishops in several European countries have resigned either because they were unmasked as abusers or had mishandled abuse cases.
Benedict has several times apologized for the abuses and the Vatican says tougher measures have been put in place to screen out seminarians who could become abusers.
Additional reporting by Tom Heneghan in Paris, Editing by Sara Webb and Sonya Hepinstall