- Associated Press - Friday, December 16, 2011

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Thousands of children suffered sexual abuse in Dutch Catholic institutions over the past 65 years, and church officials knew about the abuse but failed to stop it or help victims because they feared sparking scandals, according to a long-awaited report released Friday. The report also estimated that one in 10 Dutch children suffered some form of sexual abuse more broadly in society.

The findings detailed some of the most widespread abuse yet linked to the Catholic church, which has been under fire for years over abuse allegations in multiple countries including the United States. The Dutch probe prompted the archbishop of Utrecht to apologize to victims on behalf of the entire Dutch Catholic organization, saying the report “fills us with shame and sorrow.”

The abuse ranged from “unwanted sexual advances” to rape, the report said. Abusers numbered in the hundreds, at least, and included priests, brothers, pastors and lay people who worked in religious orders and congregations. The number of abuse victims who spent some of their youth in church institutions likely lies somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000, according to the probe, which went back as far as 1945.

The commission behind the investigation was set up last year under the leadership of former government minister Wim Deetman, who said there could be no doubt church leaders knew of the problem. “The idea that people did not know there was a risk … is untenable,” he said.

Deetman said abuse continued in part because the Catholic church in the Netherlands was splintered, so bishops and religious orders sometimes worked autonomously to deal with abuse and “did not hang out their dirty laundry.” However, he said the commission concluded that “it is wrong to talk of a culture of silence” by the church as a whole.

Similar investigations and reports in the United States, Canada, Ireland, Belgium and other countries also have documented widespread cases of children suffering at the hands of Catholic clergy and others working at church institutions.

In Ireland alone, judge-led investigations have produced four mammoth reports since 2005 documenting how bishops shuttled known pedophiles throughout Ireland and to unwitting parishes in the United States and Australia. They detailed how tens of thousands of children suffered wide-ranging abuses in workhouse-style residential schools, and how leaders of the largest diocese in Dublin didn’t tell police of any crimes until forced by the weight of lawsuits in the mid-1990s.

In September, abuse victims upset that no high-ranking Roman Catholic leaders have been prosecuted for sheltering guilty priests called on the International Criminal Court to investigate the pope and top Vatican cardinals for possible crimes against humanity. The Vatican called the move a “ludicrous publicity stunt.”

The Dutch probe followed allegations of repeated incidents of abuse at one cloister that spread to claims from Catholic institutions across the country.

The investigating commission received some 1,800 complaints of abuse at Catholic schools, seminaries and orphanages. It then conducted a broader survey of the general population for a more comprehensive analysis of the scale and nature of sexual abuse of minors in the church and elsewhere.

Based on a survey of more than 34,000 people, the commission estimated that one in 10 Dutch children suffered some form of abuse broadly in society. The number doubled to 20 percent of children who spent part of their youth in an institution like an orphanage or boarding school — whether Catholic or not.

Bert Smeets, an abuse victim, said the report did not go far enough in investigating and outlining in precise detail exactly what happened.

“What was happening was sexual abuse, violence, spiritual terror, and that should have been investigated,” Smeets told The Associated Press. “It remains vague. All sorts of things happened, but nobody knows exactly what or by whom. This way they avoid responsibility.”

Archbishop Wim Eijk said victims would be compensated by a commission the Dutch church set up last month and which has a scale starting at euro5,000 ($6,500) and rising to a maximum of euro100,000 ($130,000) depending on the nature of the abuse.

He said he felt personally ashamed of the abuse. “It is terrible,” he said.

The Dutch Conference of Religious Orders also apologized, calling the abuse “a dark chapter in the history of religious life.”

“We want to apologize for these mistakes and we want to never make them again,” the conference said in an open letter to all victims.

The commission said about 800 priests, brothers, pastors or lay people working for the church were named in the complaints. About 105 of them were still alive, although it was not known if they remained in church positions, the report said. It did not release their names and identified them as “perpetrators” rather than “offenders,” meaning they had not been proven to have committed a crime.

Prosecutors said in a statement that Deetman’s inquiry had referred 11 cases — without naming the alleged perpetrators — to them.

Prosecutors opened only one investigation based on those reports, saying the other 10 did not contain enough detailed information and adding that they also appeared to have happened too long ago to prosecute. Had the case files contained enough information to trigger an investigation, prosecutors could have asked for the identities of the suspected abusers.

Deetman said the inquiry could not establish a “scientific link” between priests’ celibacy and abuse, but he added, “we don’t consider it impossible … maybe if there was voluntary celibacy a number of problems would not have happened.”

According to the Dutch Central Bureau for Statistics, 29 percent of the Dutch population of 16 million identified themselves as Catholics in 2008, making it the largest religion in the country.