Netherlands: Lives left in ruin by the Catholic 'Brothers of Love'

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Pastor Dale Morgan

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Mar 14, 2010, 3:33:15 AM3/14/10
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Netherlands: Lives left in ruin by the Catholic 'Brothers of Love'


Published: 12 March 2010 17:09 | Changed: 13 March 2010 16:45

Every day, more people are coming forward with reports of sexual abuse suffered at Catholic boarding schools in the Netherlands. Eikenburg boarding school is one institution mentioned more often than others.

By Joep Dohmen
NRC Handelsblad

Misty-eyed men in their 50s and 60s finally tell the story of their abuse at the hands of priests now in their 70s and 80s. Those priests cry as well as they admit their wrongdoings. After 40 years, the silence has been broken surrounding sexual abuse committed by priests of the Brothers of Love order at Eikenburg boarding school in Eindhoven.

Last month, NRC Handelsblad and Radio Netherlands Worldwide first broke the story of former students who were abused by Salesian priests at Don Bosco boarding school in ’s-Heerenberg. Since then, 350 victims have reported cases of abuse to an office of the Catholic Church in the Netherlands.

Another boarding school

The joint investigation has now revealed a second boarding school where abuse appears to have been both widespread and serious in nature.

Eleven former students of the now defunct Eikenburg Catholic boarding school for boys in Eindhoven have come forward offering independent testimony of the sexual and physical abuse they and others suffered there between 1956 and 1983.

The former students have accused nine priests and one lay brother. Some 50 priests worked at Eikenburg in the period the abuse took place. In its heyday, 350 children lived at the boarding school, mostly the sons of diplomats, industrialists, merchants and employees of electronics manufacturer, Philips.

The boarding school opened its doors in 1849 and is “tucked away in the pristine serenity, protected by sturdy oaks and ample forests,” according to a promotional leaflet from the 1950s. In 1996 it closed its doors because it no longer attracted sufficient students. The last priests to serve in the order still live at the school.

A truly religious upbringing

The priests’ stated goal was to “give the pupils a truly religious upbringing, and make them accustomed to an orderly and regular life, diligence and good manners.” Loving one’s neighbour was “the central mission in life” for the Brothers of Love.

Dolf - who asked to be mentioned by his first name only - boarded an airplane destined for the Netherland in the fall of 1956. His parents, who lived abroad, thought he would be in good hands with the order.

When he arrived at the school’s gate, his group leader awaited him amidst a tapestry of brown and yellow autumnal leaves, Dolf recalled. The priest had black hair combed back over his head and wore horn-rimmed black glasses and a toga of the same colour. He was a heavy-set, coarse man.

The “truly religious upbringing” touted by the promotional leaflet consisted mostly of terror and humiliation. “I got so nervous I wet my bed,” Dolf, now 63, recalled. “That would lead to more punishment, and public ridicule.”

If his group leader priest got very angry, he would walk into the dining hall and tug at the edges of the table cloths, leaving the students to clean up the resulting mess. Masses were held at six every morning. A meat jelly served often for dinner was so disgusting, some boys couldn’t keep their food down. Anyone who gagged would be forced to eat his own vomit, and was beaten to boot.

Nowhere to turn to

“After a few weeks, I was woken up in the dormitory in the middle of the night,” Dolf remembered. “The priest took me with him and made me kneel down. I was covered with 15 blankets, and sat there sweating for 45 minutes. Then I had to satisfy him. This process was repeated every week for a full year, in every way imaginable. As a child, I didn’t understand what was happening. Later, he also tried to rape me. He was so big and strong. His hands covered my entire face.”

After 18 months, the priest suddenly disappeared, but Dolf was left scarred for life. At school, he became impossible to handle. “Later I was taken in by some very sweet people, and received psychiatric treatment. Now that I have retired, it is all coming back to me,” Dolf said.

The worst, Dolf recalled, was the combination of loneliness, homesickness and the lack of safety. “My parents were far away. I had nowhere to turn,” he said. Telling them of his plight by letter was impossible. All mail sent to and from students was checked by the priests.

Feeling hurt and saddened, Dolf sought out the Brothers of Love last year. “My story was belittled. They told me the priest had been a little crazy, but that it hadn’t been that bad,” Dolf said.

Father Van Heugten (74), now abbot of the order, told NRC Handelsblad that he was familiar with Dolf’s story. “The brother was sent to a psychiatric institution,” he said. The order did not investigate the matter any further at the time.

Pilgrimage of sorts

Ton, now 61, is the son of a successful businessman from Nijmegen. In the two years he stayed at the same boarding school, his life was “totally ruined,” he said. He was also abused by a man in a toga. “His hands would crawl under my bed sheets. His penis would be in my mouth,” Ton recalled.

Years later,Ton’s therapist called the man to confront him and he confessed. But he refused any further contact. “I was so happy he confessed,” Ton cried as he spoke about it. His therapist, José Klaassen, said there is no reason to doubt the veracity of his client’s story.

Ton was never able to put the abuse entirely behind him. On an annual pilgrimage of sorts, he still returns to a nook of the boarding school where he would beat the walls in despair as a child.

After the school became a co-ed institution, girls fell victim as well. One of them is now 42, married with two children. She still visits a therapist every week. She was abused by a young priest in her room at Eikenburg for three years, from 1980 to 1983. What began with consolation ended in years of regular sex.

There are many victims like Dolf and Ton. Some willing to go on record, others not. Some still feel guilt or shame over what happened to them. The main thread running through their confessions is the wanton nature of the physical and sexual abuse by priests and laymen alike. In the rare cases the priests’ supervisors did act, perpetrators were only reassigned elsewhere. The abuse was never investigated nor did anyone put a stop it. The abuse continued until at least 1983.

Abbot Van Heugten at first refused to comment on the accusations. “My advisors and my doctor have told me: no publicity,” he said before hanging up. He returned the call a day later, sounding desperate. “We didn’t know one of our board members had a relationship with a 13-year-old girl,” he said, referring to one of the latter cases of abuse. “He was here a second ago confessing to me in tears. This morning, I spoke to another abused former student over the phone four hours. I am at a loss, sir. This is all coming down on me now. I can only hope you will refrain from mentioning priests’ name,” Van Heugten said.

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