By STEPHEN CASTLE -
BRUSSELS — The Roman Catholic Church, battered by sexual abuse scandals from the United States to Belgium, is facing a new set of damaging allegations in the Netherlands. Figures released Thursday by an investigative commission showed that almost 2,000 people had made complaints of sexual or physical abuse against the church, in a country with only four million Catholics.
“The Roman Catholic Church has not faced a crisis like this since the French Revolution,” Peter Nissen, a professor of the history of religion at Radboud University in the Netherlands, said of the growing abuse scandal.
With one legal case starting this week, and accusations against two former bishops, the reaction of the church appears to have fueled the crisis. Nearly all of the cases are decades old, with probably no more than 10 from the past 20 years.
Asked in March on television about the hundreds of complaints already surfacing, one of the church’s most senior figures, Cardinal Adrianus Simonis, shocked the nation by replying not in Dutch but in German. “Wir haben es nicht gewusst” — We knew nothing — he said, using a phrase associated with Nazi excuses after World War II.
“A lot of people perceived it as an affirmation of the culture of covering up cases,” said Professor Nissen, adding that it meant to many, “ ‘We should have known’ or ‘We knew but we didn’t want to know.’ ”
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said that he had no comment and that the matter was in the hands of Dutch bishops.
Next month Cardinal Simonis, the retired bishop of Utrecht, will testify in Middelburg as a witness in a court hearing already under way involving sexual abuse.
In an interim report, issued Thursday, a commission headed by Wim Deetman, a Protestant and former education minister, said it had received roughly 1,975 reports of sexual or physical abuse, some directly but others through a body set up for victims, called Hulp en Recht, or Help and Justice.
One central accusation in the Netherlands is that, as in other countries, known abusers were simply transferred to new parishes.
In recent weeks it has emerged that a Roman Catholic order, the Salesians of Don Bosco, paid about $22,000 to settle an abuse claim against one bishop, Jan ter Schure, who died in 2003. The abuse is said to have taken place in Ugchelen between 1948 and 1953. The order declined to comment.
Meanwhile, Hulp en Recht is examining claims against a former bishop, Jo Gijsen, now 78, who has been accused of having an abusive relationship with a student at the Rolduc seminary between 1959 and 1961. He has denied accusations against him.
Central to the growing public debate over the church’s culpability is the extent to which sexual abuse was tolerated and covered up.
The hearing at which Cardinal Simonis will testify next month involves a priest convicted of abusing three youngsters in Terneuzen. The priest had been arrested, though not prosecuted, on similar grounds in the late 1970s as director of a Catholic youth center near The Hague, part of the diocese where Cardinal Simonis was then bishop.
The accuser’s lawyer, Martin De Witte, who represents about 120 other people claiming abuse, said his client wanted an apology and damages. “We say the Catholic Church didn’t take the measures to protect children from this man,” he said. “They gave him another chance, and another, and another.”
Pieter Kohnen, spokesman for the church in the Netherlands, said that, under its rules, the diocesan bishop did not have responsibility for institutions run by Catholic orders.
Mr. Kohnen argued that cases now coming to light took place mostly before 1970 and among the religious orders that controlled many boarding schools and boys’ clubs.
He said: “Of the 1,799 cases notified to Hulp en Recht since March of this year, less than 10 took place between 1990-2010. Of the 1,799 cases, 265 relate to clergy in one of the seven dioceses and around 1,500 are related to members of religious orders and congregations.”
Mr. Kohnen rejected the accusation that perpetrators were simply moved around the country. “The general allegation is extremely general and not in conformity with the facts,” he said. “People were replaced, but not without therapy or proper help — what was felt necessary in the circumstances.”
According to Professor Nissen, the church’s argument that it has little authority over religious orders is correct, but he thinks this is a narrow position to take. “They take a legal, canonical, approach, but you could take a pastoral approach and say that bishops are leaders of the Catholic community, and that religious orders, while having autonomy, are part of this community,” he said.