A Roman Catholic brother administered a deadly overdose of medication to 37 severely handicapped boys at a home for the disabled in the Netherlands 60 years ago, the Dutch public prosecution office has confirmed. On the heels of a castration scandal in the church this spring, a deeply macabre cold case has been solved.
Murder, manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter. Thirty-seven counts. Those are the charges that would have been brought against Brother Andreas if he were still alive and if the statue of limitations had not expired.
The public prosecutor in the Dutch city of Roermond reports that Andreas, who belonged to a congregation called the Brothers of the Holy Joseph, put the permanently bedridden boys to death one by one, shortly after they arrived at the home between 1952 and 1954.
The public prosecutor’s report, released this morning finally clarifies a sharp spike in deaths during that period at the Saint Joseph’s home in the tiny southern hamlet of Heel.
Brother Andreas himself wrote in his memoirs that he had acted with the permission of his brother superior at Saint Joseph’s, and in his writings he never expressed any regrets, according to the prosecutor’s report.
If the staff medical doctor at the facility in Heel were alive today, he would be charged with forgery for issuing 37 death certificates falsely indicating death by natural causes.
The “Injection Brother”
The report details the worst crimes within Dutch Roman Catholic institutions since the sexual abuse scandal erupted in 2010. It does not specify the actual cause of death of the 37 youngsters, but calls it probable that the boys died of an overdose of medication, either morphine or Phenobarbital.
The statue of limitations for the criminal acts described in the report expired in 1972. The main “suspects” in the case are dead. Brother Andreas, who was known at Saint Joseph’s as the “injection brother,” died in 1997 and lies buried in Westvleteren, Belgium.
The Dutch public prosecution reports that several other brothers at Saint Joseph’s were aware of what Andreas was doing. In 1954, at the very moment that the labor inspectorate was to begin an investigation into abuse allegations, Andreas was moved to another facility.
The spike in deaths in Heel came to light last year when the Deetman Commission, which was investigating sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, found suspicious evidence in the archives of the diocese of Roermond. The commission turned over the case to the public prosecutor’s office.
Amid a public outcry, the prosecutor launched a fact-finding inquiry last May, putting six investigators on the case. It was announced at that time that no criminal prosecutions would be possible.
As the story gripped the country, Nico van Hout, former head nurse at St Joseph’s, told investigators from the prosecution office about a conversation he had when he was hired in 1969. An elderly nurse, a monk named Augustinus, took him by the arm to the infirmary and showed him the coffin storage rooms and the “death room.”
False death certificates
Augustinus claimed his predecessor had personally killed 20 of the boys “to put them out of their suffering,” Van Hout said.
Nico van Hout told the prosecutors he then went to the staff medical doctor at St Joseph’s and confronted him with the story. The doctor told him the situation had been “a real headache.” When Van Hout asked him what he meant, he said that “you could write ‘heart failure’ on a few of the death certificates, but you couldn’t keep on filling in the same cause of death.”
Aside from the deaths by overdose, the prosecution office’s report also cited documentation of rampant physical and sexual abuse by the brothers at Saint Joseph’s. Less severely disabled boys were slammed against walls, choked, and hit in the face with a ring of keys. At night they were put to work in a makeshift factory in the cellar where they produced light bulbs for Philips.
The Dutch authorities at different levels were aware of the deaths, exploitation of children and other abuses as early as 1954, but none reported them to the police or prosecution service. The prosecutor’s report says the facts were covered up by successive directors and management of the Saint Joseph’s home, superiors of the Brothers of the Holy Joseph, the state labour and public health inspectors, and the state child protection authority.
The diocese of Roermond, responsible for the village of Heel, was also aware of the deaths and helped to cover them up, even though it was aware of the likelihood of foul play, the public prosecutor’s report says. Even by the standards of that day, the prosecution service adds, it was “unacceptable” that the diocese took no further action.
The labour inspectorate informed the diocese it would not report the deaths to higher authorities “so as not to harm the Catholic cause.” Correspondence cited by the prosecution also indicates that the Secretary General of the child protection authority offered to ensure that the justice ministry “would not raise a stink” about the severe physical punishments meted out at Saint Joseph’s.
The cover-up even extended to the Dutch government in The Hague. A high-ranking Catholic official at the justice ministry was informed in 1954 of the punishments and child labour taking place at the home. He wrote to the bishop of Roermond that if “a good solution” were found, “the minister would be willing to refrain from taking steps against Saint Joseph’s.”
The prosecution service informed all of the victims’ next of kin of its findings prior to releasing today’s report