Saskia was abused by a priest, and he still works in the monastery
By Marije van Beek
Saskia was abused by a priest in a monastery. That case has been settled with compensation and apologies. But she is worried: the perpetrator is still working in the monastery, and the monastery leadership does not understand her.
She came to rest in the monastery. At that time, Saskia was 21 years old, and had just moved to rooms in Rotterdam. She wasn’t doing well. “I got stuck in my education and I found living alone very difficult. In addition, I already had not really wonderful and romantic sexual experiences. Someone advised me to go to the monastery for a while, that seemed like a good idea.”
Upon arrival in Heeswijk-Dinther in Brabant province, at the Abbey of Berne, the quiet corridors immediately calmed her and she met a “very nice” priest. “I came there with my grief, and he led me to my room. The only thing I remember is that I woke up and he sat on the edge of the bed. He had put a soporific in my tea, he said.”
With a look of incomprehension, Saskia, now 56 years old, wonders why alarm bells did not immediately go off after that cup of tea. “I was brought up protectedly, and: wasn’t it a priest? So it would be fine, I thought. I kept coming to the monastery again and again, when things had become too much for me.”
Until then she tells her story in a controlled and fluent way, in a meeting location somewhere in Groningen. The sequel is more difficult. “That year he started crossing red lines”, says Saskia. “I choose that word because I can’t talk about exactly what happened. I thought it was very dirty, I can tell you.”
The 2013 ruling made by the Complaints Committee for Sexual Abuse in the Roman Catholic Church describes precisely what the sexual abuse was. It lasted for a few years. “I didn’t have the impression that I could refuse. This is difficult to explain, I know, because people sometimes don’t believe it. But I was so stuck in the situation. He let me do it, something I didn’t want at all. It is comparable to peer pressure, which means that you do something against your will, because you need something from the group. I really needed the peace that I found in the monastery. And I initially got it there too. But it turned out that there was an extremely expensive price tag.”
Only when Saskia was a little older, got into a relationship and found a new, fine house, did she manage to keep the priest away. Her life went on. She got married, went to work, had children. But it didn’t go well yet, she says. “I have felt guilty for what I did for twenty years. I could not be the mother and the wife I wanted to be. My husband had bought a pig in a poke, I thought, with someone who carries such a past with her.”
“Everything that went wrong in my life – and that was quite a lot – I saw as punishment by God for what I had done. Relationships that broke down, for example. At the end of the nineteen eighties, I started a theology course, where sexual abuse was discussed, and I learned that he should never have done this as a clergyman, as an authority. Then I suddenly thought: damn it, he‘s the culprit.”
Ten years ago, Saskia experienced major depression and suicidal tendencies and went into therapy. “It was there that I first started to talk about what I experienced. I found out that the idea that I was to blame had long isolated me. That is also what happens when people play it down. That really made me stand alone.”
Two thousand euros
A complaint by a man about sexual abuse – which took place between the late 1980s and late 1990s – had already been declared valid against the same clergyman, it turned out. “The similarities of that case with mine are shocking”, says Saskia. “Just like with me, it started with grooming. He told everything about himself and asked you to keep it a secret. That started with very small things. For example his taste in music. “The elderly people here don’t understand that”, he said. He created a confidential atmosphere, and he also worked on your guilt: after all, you are always allowed to come here?”
With the decision of the committee about her complaint, which was also upheld, a burden fell off her shoulders. She hits the table with her open hand. “My guilt is gone. Very really. The clergyman just said it to the committee: “I did that.”
The priest apologized at the session. From a business point of view, the issue was settled with the compensation that Saskia received, two thousand euros. But her worries are not over yet. The priest is still active in the Abbey of Berne, deals with guests in the monastery, including young people. “That bothers me,” says Saskia. “I think that he should no longer come into contact with people. He is dangerous in the one-to-one contact. Otherwise he would not have done this to me? Who says the leadership is not being lied to again? He has done everything right under their noses?”
The priest himself cannot respond because of personal circumstances, says the abbot of the Abbey of Berne, Denis Hendrickx. The abbot does not share the concerns of Saskia. Measures have been taken, he says: the priest has been suspended for a while, church members have been informed of the abuse. Whether it is wise to bring the clergyman into contact with people? “He has had his punishment”, says Hendrickx. “This does not mean that we are no longer aware of the past. We remain alert.”
In a mail exchange about this issue between her and the abbot something “very strange” happened, Saskia says. “He spoke of the abuse and said the committee had determined that it was a “friendship” between the priest and me in which “unsuitable” things had happened. But that was not what the committee determined, those were the words of the clergyman, which he used in his defense.”
“That sentence is incredibly poignant”, says Saskia. “Because by pretending that there was a friendship, the blame comes back to me again. And it minimizes the abuse. The words “not suitable” – that is as if this priest once committed a minor infraction. No, he has repeatedly abused me. And not just me, but another person too.”
Eg, there were more things that gave Saskia the feeling that the monastery had little awareness of what the priest had caused. “They celebrated his priestly ordination anniversary, had him do interviews and do public appearances. Apparently they don’t have the feeling that the abuse could affect his status as a clergyman.”
At Saskia’s request, the monastery is now trying to keep the priest out of the media. Abbot Hendrickx says that he did not mean to condone the abuse with the aforementioned sentence about the “relationship”. “In the meantime,” Saskia sighs, “the person who abused me can still work with young people.”
The priest who abused Saskia has not been convicted in the regular legal system: the case there would have been time barred. When the extent of the abuse scandals in the church came to light, the church decided to set up a committee, with no limitation period. That way Saskia was able to go somewhere and she received compensation and apologies. But this system also has its disadvantages, she thinks. “The church is actually conducting its own legal system about crime. But you cannot solve sexual abuse internally. They consider themselves experts in this area, but they are not at all. Nevertheless, they believe they can impose sanctions and assess whether someone will do a repeat offense.”
Eventually the abbot came to Groningen for an interview with Saskia. “I thought: “Fine, then I can finally explain my concerns to him”. But in that conversation he said: “It must be possible to forgive at some point in time.” …
Saskia … took that as follows: “I was wondering: how can I forgive someone who can continue as usual in the monastery? No, I’m worried terribly. After all, there is a secondary school opposite that monastery. In my eyes, these are all potential victims. I would very much like to have lost that worry.”
In the meantime, Saskia has sought help from fellow survivors’ organizations and abuse experts. A world of difference with how the church approached her, she says. “Some education or professionalism in dealing with victims is missing in the church. I have thought long and hard about why people treated me so carelessly. I think the church is used to focusing on sinners rather than victims. Their core business is “sin” and “forgiveness”, and we are just a kind of by-product of sin that they can’t do much with.”
“I think the abbot thinks the period of abuse is behind them and that he has adhered to all the conditions and rules of the church. And that it should by now be over. But they completely ignore the fact that as a victim you have been damaged for your life.”
Then she tells me that her faith, which she enjoyed a great deal of in her youth, has not been what it was since. “I never again think you can dream pleasantly during a mass. Eg, participating in sharing bread and wine in the church is very difficult for me. Because I know that on the other side of the country someone is handing out the same thing, the one who did that to me.”
The full name of Saskia and the name of the priest are known to the editors.
“Better aftercare needed for victims of clerical abuse”
Better aftercare is needed for victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy. According to the alliance organization Women’s Platform on Church Child Abuse (VPKK), the victims often encounter incomprehension and insensitivity. These are people for whom the church itself has established that the abuse has indeed taken place and who have already gone through a complaints procedure. The interest group is calling for a guideline for dealing with or aftercare for this group.
Of the more than a thousand Catholic clerics who have been guilty of abuse in the Netherlands [in the twentieth century], a small minority is still alive. At least “ten to twenty” of these clergymen are still active in monasteries and parishes, says the Dutch Religious Conference (KNR), the umbrella organization of orders and congregations in the Netherlands.
According to the VPKK, the measures taken against clergy who committed abuse are not always clear. They notice major differences per order and diocese. …
One of the measures is that perpetrators are no longer allowed to do the work that caused them to commit the abuse. But the case of Saskia, where the priest still works with young people, shows, according to abuse expert Maud Kips of the VPKK, that this is not true everywhere.
The KNR mentions the contact group for victims under the leadership of Bishop Hans van den Hende as an example of an aftercare tool. But according to abuse expert Maud Kips of the VPKK that is an “empty shell”. She has no good experiences with that contact group. “So we no longer cooperate with that.” …
It was called a bit of fidgeting in the nineteen seventies. Alarm bells did not ring in the event of abuse. France’s most prominent Catholic clergyman, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, has been sentenced for not stopping abuse by priest Bernard Preynat. The victim of abuse François Devaux played a major role in uncovering the affair.
Pope Francis does not live up to the expectations of victims at the [Vatican] summit about abuse. Just like at the start of the four-day abuse summit in the Vatican that took place last month, Pope Francis also spoke firmly at the conclusion. Child abuse may no longer occur in the Roman Catholic Church and it may no longer be covered up. But how?