Tens of thousands of Dutch children were sexually abused by priests and other Roman Catholic religious figures in the last 65 years, but church officials failed to take adequate action or report problems to police, an independent commission said Friday.
Many of the victims spent part of their childhood in Catholic institutions such as schools and orphanages, where the risk of abuse was twice as high as in the general population, the commission said.
But complaints were often ignored or covered up by authorities who were more intent on protecting the church's reputation than providing care for abuse victims.
An independent commission set up by the Dutch Conference of Bishops and the Conference of Dutch Religious Orders, another Catholic organization, examined such misconduct from 1945 to 2010 and how the church chose to deal — or not to deal — with it. Friday's long-awaited report adds more fuel to the abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church worldwide, from America to Australia.
The Vatican's credibility and standing has been significantly eroded by a stream of allegations that priests molested and assaulted members of their flock, and that bishops and other senior church officials tried to hush up the accusations.
The Dutch commission stopped short of accusing the Catholic Church in the Netherlands as a whole of fostering an institutional "culture of silence."
The report said that authority within the Dutch church was fragmented, with each diocese given latitude to deal with problems on its own. There was no centrally organized policy or procedure for dealing with sexual abuse.
Wim Eijk, the archbishop of Utrecht, apologized for what happened in years past and told journalists that the report "fills us with shame and sorrow."
The conference of religious orders called the abuse "a dark chapter in the history of religious life" and vowed not to repeat mistakes. The investigation was launched in August 2010 after allegations of abuse at a Catholic institution in eastern Holland.
Those allegations triggered others from around the country of sexual misconduct by Catholic authority figures.
The commission found that tens of thousands of children in the Netherlands were subjected over the years to abuse ranging from unwanted sexual advances to rape. Of these victims, 10,000 to 20,000 lived for some part of their youth in Catholic-run institutions such as reform schools and seminaries during the period from 1945 to '81, after which Catholic homes for children were phased out.
Abusers included priests, members of religious orders and lay workers. When victims tried to complain, they encountered a hierarchy that often dismissed their allegations and even, in some cases, blamed the youngsters for provoking the abuse, the report said.
Punishment for offenders, when it was actually meted out, consisted of quiet transfers, orders to do penance, or medical or psychological treatment. Defrocking an offending priest was rare; so was expulsion, if only because officials wanted to avoid a decrease in the number of members of a religious order, the commission said.
Reporting abusers and their alleged crimes to police was anathema to church officials eager to prevent any whiff of scandal. "That was left to victims and their parents, who were certainly not encouraged to do so," the commission said in a statement accompanying the release of its report.
"The commission is critical of the hesitation, and sometimes the unwillingness, of bishops and superiors to notify the public prosecution service."
The commission said that financial compensation for abuse victims, who were mostly given no care or counseling by the church, is "an essential element of the reparation that must be made."