AMSTERDAM – A Dutch broadcaster has uncovered documents showing that a prominent Catholic-oriented child protection agency in the Netherlands debated the sexual abuse of children in the church as early as the 1950s and made attempts to stop the problem.
The efforts of the now-defunct Catholic Association for the Protection of Children to stop the abuse, however, were not very successful -- a commission appointed this year to investigate child sex abuse in the Dutch Church has received more than 2,000 complaints stretching back decades.
But the confidential documents uncovered by the program "Altijd Wat" are significant in providing rare concrete evidence that many Catholics in the Netherlands must have known about the problem decades ago, despite later denials by the Church: prominent Catholic politicians, priests and teachers all belonged to the organization.
The documents also offer valuable insight into how well-meaning Catholics of the day tried to address a taboo problem.
"It was a subject that wasn't spoken about in public," said spokesman Bert Elbertse of the Catholic Church in the Netherlands. He cautioned against concluding that the extent of the problem was well-understood, despite the debate within the association.
"Even people who heard that there had been cases of abuse at other schools may have thought 'well, that doesn't happen here,"' he said.
He said he expected the commission investigating sexual abuse in the church to address in its findings next month on how much church leaders knew, and when.
Testifying as a witness in a court case earlier this year, retired Cardinal Adrianus Simonis said the Dutch Catholic hierarchy only really began addressing the issue after reports of widespread abuse began emerging from the United States in the 1990s.
"For us, it did not exist," Simonis said.
Altijd Wat uncovered the documents in the archives of a historical museum of the southern Dutch city of Den Bosch and published reproductions of key documents on the program's website.
The discussion began when a judge in Den Bosch convicted two teachers at a boarding school of molestation on Nov. 19, 1958. The following day he sent a handwritten letter to a Catholic member of parliament. The politician, Jan de Haas, was apparently an old friend of the judge's who also happened to be the chairman of the association, known by its Dutch acronym KVK.
"What happened here could happen in another school tomorrow," judge W. Ariens wrote in the letter, which also said hiring policies were lax.
The following month Ariens' letter was read aloud at a meeting of the KVK, and the matter was raised repeatedly in the organization's correspondence for the following four years.
The most tangible result was several letters sent to the heads of all 112 Catholic boarding schools in the country urging better teacher vetting.
"In recent years various cases have occurred in (our) schools with extremely serious and sad consequences," wrote Father Piet Denis in one. "Further description of these cases is not deemed necessary."
He advised the schools that it was "not only desirable but definitely urgently necessary" to do background checks, with the words 'definitely' and 'urgently' underlined.
Among the most painful failures of the KVK, a plan suggested by a nun to create a "black list" of sexual offenders for institutions to use as part of a background check before hiring new teachers was debated but never enacted.
Instead, as in many other countries, priests and brothers who were dismissed for sex offenses were frequently able to move to a new city or district and do the same thing again.