“Hare, hunter, field” — Castration for deviancy

The New York Post usually wins the award for best worst headline amongst the New York metropolitan papers.  “Headless body  in topless bar” remains my favorite.

The New York Times however is giving the Post a run for their money.  In the 21 March 2012 issue on page A4 we have “Dutch Church is accused of castrating young men“.

This is not a story for the faint of heart. And, if you were looking for a fair, informed treatment of the story, look elsewhere.

Here is the lede.

A young man in the care of the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands was surgically castrated decades ago after complaining about sexual abuse, according to new evidence that only adds to the scandal engulfing the church there.

The case, which dates from the 1950s, has increased pressure for a government-led inquiry into sexual abuse in the Dutch church, amid suspicions that as many as 10 young men may have suffered the same fate.

“This case is especially painful because it concerns a victim who was victimized for a second time,” said Peter Nissen, a professor of the history of religion at Radboud University in the Netherlands. “He had the courage to go to the police and was castrated.”

It is unclear, however, whether the reported castration was performed as a punishment for whistle-blowing or what was seen as a treatment for homosexuality.

The article recounts the Roman Catholic sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Netherlands in 2010. It also reports that this claim of castration as retribution for reporting abuse had been investigated by a commission of inquiry led by a former government minister. A friend reported the incident to the abuse commission — the victim died in motor accident in 1958, two years after the surgery. The commission said it

…was unable to reach any conclusions on the case from the evidence at its disposal.

According to the Times

The victim, Henk Heithuis, lived in Catholic institutions from infancy after being taken into care. When he complained about sexual abuse to the police, Mr. Heithuis, 20 at the time, was transferred to a Catholic psychiatric hospital before being admitted to the St. Joseph Hospital in Veghel, where he was castrated.

After the commission released its findings, the friend went to a reporter who broke the story in the Dutch press last week.

Mr. Dohmen, the investigative journalist who broke the news in the daily NRC Handelsblad, said that correspondence from the 1950s and Mr. Heithuis’s testimony to [the friend] suggested that there could have been an additional nine cases. Mr. Dohmen said he uncovered another case. A gay man, who had not been abused, was also castrated, he said. That man has asked that his identity not be made public.

Mr. Dohmen said he did not know whether Mr. Heithuis was castrated as a punishment for whistle-blowing and could not provide further evidence of the other possible victims.

In an e-mailed comment, Mr. Rogge said he believed that the castration was a punishment.

This is a disturbing story. But is it fair or thorough reporting? No.

The lede states there is “new evidence that only adds to the scandal engulfing the church there.” The body of the story reports that there was no new evidence to be found.

What is also missing from this article is a comment or statement from the church, the hospital, the state — anyone representing the authorities that had this poor man castrated or the commission that reviewed this case. The voices we hear are of a professor of religious history — who offers an opinion that this was a bad thing, but has no knowledge of the particular case; and of a reporter interviewing another reporter about his story.

Does this failure to offer a second side to the story necessarily render it suspect? I can see an argument being made that there is no need to hear a justification of castration. But as the New York Times ran with a headline that accuses the Dutch Catholic Church of castrating young men, I would hope there was an attempt to elicit an explanation.

Another piece that is missing from this story is context. How many people were castrated in the Netherlands during this period? The Dutch reporter cited by the Times believes there were 10 cases. A quick search through the academic literature reports that there were around 400 cases.

An article entitled “Eugenic and sexual folklores and the castration of sex offenders in the Netherlands (1938–1968)” published in the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Vol. 39, No. 2, June 2008 by Theo van der Meer states that castration of sexual offenders was part of the Dutch state’s eugenics program. Pedophiles were castrated to prevent them from re-offending as were those adjudged to be mentally deficient.

The abstract to the article reads in part:

From 1938 to 1968 in the Netherlands, after a decade of debates, 400 sex offenders who had been committed to asylums for the criminally insane were ‘voluntarily’ and ‘therapeutically’ castrated. For political reasons debates on castration, meant to create consensus, eliminated any reference to or connotation with eugenics, yet these policies were unthinkable without them.

Read through the journal article and you will find all the details you will ever want to read about a dark chapter of Western medicine which saw castration as a tool in a public health program to improve the human race through eugenics and to combat what that age saw as criminal sexual deviancy.

The Times story fails the test of good journalism on several levels. It begins with an over the top headline and lede that implies the existence of Catholic cabal worthy of Dan Brown that preyed on young men — abusing them and castrating them.

It offers uncorroborated anecdotal evidence from a man dead 54 years to insinuate the Church was complicit in a gruesome crime — yet we don’t know if it was a crime. The history offered is full of gaps and makes assumptions — was the victim in the care of a Catholic institution when he reported the abuse? Was he passed from Catholic institutional custodial care to a Catholic-affiliated psychiatric hospital to a Catholic-affiliated surgery center for sterilization? Under what circumstances was the claim of abuse made? The journal article reports that castration was ordered by the state for those found to be mentally deficient or who were incorrigible sexual offenders. Who was the victim? Could the Catholic Church order the castration of a young man? How was that possible?

Professionally this is sloppy work. It is also offensive. The Catholic pedophile scandal in Holland is a horrific case of abuse, betrayal and evil. Tossing the incendiary charge of castration into this cesspit of moral corruption cheapens the suffering of those who were abused. It tells the true victims of abuse, “well it could have been worse, you could have been castrated.”

There is a story in this mess that a good journalist could bring out — a story of state sanctioned abuse of those whom science adjudged to be defective — of a church that relaxed its standards in the face of government and public opinion. We do not get that here. (One of the lacunae in the journal article is the objection by Catholic theologians in the 1930s to state castration programs on moral grounds and its disquiet over the whole field eugenics.)

What say you GetReligion readers? Is this a case of shoddy journalism, or courageous reporting of unpalatable truths?

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About geoconger
  • http://windstream.net Clifford Schneider

    It has been my finding that reporters/critics take information and skew the information to fit their need. The “truth” is presented only as much as it moves the audiance to accept the reporters opinion. The audiance is lead down the path to blind acceptance of anything that the reporter might print as “fact.” The audiance does not look any further than his/her name in researching the information.

  • donna

    This is not “shoddy” journalism it is “yellow” in its truest form and completely characteristic of NYT approach today. I hope u have contacted author with this article I am going to link it to him today.

  • Bill

    For the Times, when it comes to the Catholic Church, the accusation is proof of the crime. Did Dutch RC Church officials order and carry out the castration? Did they really have the power to do that? Or was it ordered, as 400 were, by Dutch court order in accordance with scientific eugenic protocols?

    This is a chilling story. Who was responsible for the castrations? Who signed the orders? Where is the paperwork? Where are the research papers and recommendations that castration be carried out? Did Dutch bishops say anything about the matter at the time?

    The Times is simply rounding up its usual suspect. When the RC Church warns that embryonic stem sell research, abortion and assisted suicide pose grave moral problems, the Times scoffs and accuses the Church of being anti-science, superstitious and misogynistic. The steady drumbeat is deliberate: Catholic bad, Catholic bad. No need to dig deeper. We know they did it. Guilty, guilty, guilty! Get in step.

    • radiofreerome

      “For the Times, when it comes to the Catholic Church, the accusation is proof of the crime.” And for Catholics, raping and castrating a young gay man merits a get out of jail free card, for that is precisely what the Catholic prime minister tried to provide the clerical rapist with.

  • Bill

    Oops! That should be stem cell research, not stem sell. Gotta remember to check spell check.

  • http://www.themediareport.com DPierre

    This is an excellent post.

    I knew there was something fishy about this ‘castration’ story, and you guys found the answer.


  • Les Eversen

    It’s fine to quibble with the reporting, the article, the lack of balance – but the reality of priest sexual abuse of the young men and women in their charge doesn’t go away. Why shouldn’t we believe this story of abuse of authority by the Catholic Church (certainly not alone among denominations in committing abuse), perhaps with collusion of the Dutch civil authorities, when so much else that has come to light has been corroborated. Challenging this story doesn’t undo the decades (and centuries) of damage perpetrated by the human dimension of the church. Crimes against individuals that the church has regularly denied, covered up, or tried to minimize and has only insincerely atoned. Yet the Catholic church attempts to maintain it has moral authority and can guide believers (and impose on non-believers) its ideas on marriage, contraception, abortion, poverty, homosexuality, etc. As an institution it is corrupt and morally bankrupt (as many dioceses have gone financially bankrupt paying settlements for the abuse of priests, with money it acquired from hoodwinked believers). You can pretend that the media and others don’t “get” religion, but actually they get it just fine, even if the reporting sucks all too often, on this topic as well as others.

  • Les Eversen

    Addendum: While this story surfaced in the New York Times, it was also covered by a number of other news sources: The Telegraph, Radio Netherlands, and the NRD Handelsblad. If this isn’t new information, why are the Dutch MPs calling for an investigation? So who doesn’t get it?

  • Julia

    For comparison – here’s the link to the Telegraph story which probably alerted the NYT to this situation.


    Looks like the civil authorities were involved to some extent. I hope the media picks up on what Get Religion found in obscure journals. Reminds me of the court-ordered sterilization of women in this country – for being mentally defective or weak-willed or whatever.

    One question that would help put all this in perspective: what percentage of the Netherlands hospitals are run by the Catholic Church? Was the hospital just carrying out court orders or directives from a bishop or religious order?

    • radiofreerome

      The Netherlands have a religiously balkanized system of government. Catholics get governed by Catholics. So there is no part of this atrocity which does not have Catholic finger prints on it.

  • http://blog.derherralipius.com/ alipius

    @ Les Eversen: “If this isn’t new information, why are the Dutch MPs calling for an investigation?”

    Child abuse was no new information either. It has been around for decades before the Church scandal broke. But “Child abuse” only became interesting for society, for the media and for politicians when it turned into “Child abuse by members of the Catholic clergy”. Can you say “Scapegoat”? And no, I am not denying the guilt of the priests or the bishops who didn’t properly deal with the cases. But I see some clear evidence that the media child-abuse-feeding-frenzy of the past decade (which too often was not only reporting/informing but went hand in hand with some catholic bashing) was not about the children. If it had been, the same frenzy could have been started decades ago by investigating not only the Church but also families, schools, sports-clubs, Hollywood, doctors’ offices et al.

    So now Dutch MPs have a chance to deal with the castration scandal AND make the Church look bad at the same time (Can you say “Scapegoat”?) by taking 10 alleged Church-castration victims out of the box of 400 state-sanctioned castration victims.

    I totally get that.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Babalupa

    The New York Times wouldn’t dare pass up an opportunity to “Slam-Dunk” the Catholic Church. Do they care if it’s true…or IF there are many more details resulting in a more favorable view regarding the actions of the Catholic hospital being forced to follow the demands of Government. Well of course they don’t care. Just another chance to beat up on Catholics once more.
    They remain hate mongers and excel in provoking ill will around the world!

  • Spencerian

    Kudos to geoconger for the article title and photo. The article itself makes no reference to this dramatic scene from the screenplay “Judgement at Nuremberg,” (starring Spencer Tracy and many stars and stars-to-be of the 1960s) where a witness for the prosecution testifies that he was castrated by the Nazis because of his mental limitations.

    The phrase, “hare, hunter, field” is used as a challenge by the defending German attorney to the witness to make a sentence from these 3 words–which the defendant cannot do.

  • sari

    Interesting article. It would have been more interesting had it examined the R.C.C.’s historical stance on castration, since the procedure was once done to preserve talented boys’ clean soprano sound. While the Church did not condone such practices, it did employ and maintain singers who had already undergone the procedure, that is, until the Pope banned castrati from singing in church choirs in the early twentieth century.

    Why is this relevant to the article? Because the Church repeatedly forbade castration at the Church’s hands. The article mentions that the castration took place in a Catholic hospital. That’s relevant, because it directly contradicts church teaching, the equivalent of performing a hysterectomy on a woman.

    The victim, Henk Heithuis, lived in Catholic institutions from infancy after being taken into care. When he complained about sexual abuse to the police, Mr. Heithuis, 20 at the time, was transferred to a Catholic psychiatric hospital before being admitted to the St. Joseph Hospital in Veghel, where he was castrated.

    The documents necessary to substantiate or deny the allegations probably no longer exist, which is why the courts can neither clear nor charge the church. Someone is friends with a reporter in the Netherlands, which is no friend to organized religion.

    • radiofreerome

      And the Catholic church is about as interested in the welfare of young gay men, celibate or not, as the average Salafi Muslim cleric is interested in protecting young women who have been raped.

  • Julia

    Hysterectomies are not forbidden by the Catholic Church unless they are done solely for birth control. Any how, that’s so much more drastic than tubal ligation I doubt that hysterectomies are done for birth control reasons.

  • sari

    My point, Julia, was that the Church has, historically, condemned castration, just as it has condemned female sterilization. Hysterectomies and castration have been performed since ancient times; tubals are a more recent procedure. It seems odd for a patient to claim castration in a Catholic setting, when the procedure was specifically banned by the Church–repeatedly. That’s all.

    The reporter should have included the Church’s position on castration. It’s an important piece of the puzzle.

    • radiofreerome

      The Catholic church has no objections to performing orchiectomies for medical reasons, such as testicular cancer. The point is that Catholic clerics and Catholic psychologists put this boy into a system which they knew would castrated him, and they had every reason to do it to punish and discredit him. If they were decent human beings they would have avoided even the appearance of this kind of corruption.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    I hate to remind the press: psychiatrists ordered the castration, and physicians did the surgery.

    The mental institution was probably run by the church because only dedicated religious were willing to work with such behaviorally challenged people. But it would be run by physicians, not bishops.

    Years ago, I worked with the mentally retarded/autistic in the days before de-institutionalization allowed them to be cared for in the community, and could I suggest that lay people have no idea at the open deviant behavior one can confront, even in these days of anti psychotic medication.

    The behavior gets worse with puberty, and indeed castration or removal of the ovaries can help these behavioral outbursts (so not all of the sterilizations were eugenic).

    This is a “scandal” for medicine, not the church, but unless one is familiar with the “behavior” involved, it is wrong to insist it was done out of malice.

  • Paul Becke

    It seems to me that, in identifying shoddy journalism and the already-established widespread paedophilia in the Dutch church during that time, as the real issue, it is the author of this article who is lamentably at fault.

    “There is a story in this mess that a good journalist could bring out — a story of state sanctioned abuse of those whom science adjudged to be defective — of a church that relaxed its standards in the face of government and public opinion.”

    “…relaxed its standards” doesn’t begin to cover the enormity of the episcopal collusion in this pinnacle of demonic depravity. The case of Ireland provides a more than adequate indication that collusion between corrupt senior churchmen, police and officialdom, generally, is by no means an unusual phenomenon, in this very area of padeophilia.

    There is a cultural or rather subcultural dimension to this scandal, which is a carry-over from the exaggerated, distorted clericalism of the Tridentine Church, most notably, of course, in traditional Catholic countries and provinces.

  • Paul Becke

    It should be noted that the author did not deny or specifically question the reported false witness by the paedophile priest which led to the heinous castrations. It’s a bit more serious than blaming the messenger, isn’t it?

    Not that I take any comfort from the ammunition it all gives to the Church’s demonic or more simply, deluded, enemies. Far from it. I don’t doubt they will love the collateral damage to the Catholic Church, some of it admittedly deserved, which the righteous furore against the malefactors must surely generate.

  • Paul Becke

    I should have said, “corrupted”, rather than “corrupt”, as the force of a cradle cultural must be enormous blinkering, when it gets something wrong, as human institutions and cultures are wont to, from time to time.

    I don’t know about those Irish bishops, but I’ve noticed the ambivalence of an Irish priest of heroic personal chastity and Christian virtue, generally, when he remarked that such or such a young man was only suing the church for the money. Well, I believe the young man was homeless and his whole life might well have been destroyed by the depravity of a certain priest then in the diocese.

    The potential for deleterious effects ensuing when the institutional church and Holy Mother Church, are conflated as one entirely heavenly body, as has been fairly normal in traditional Catholic countries, is significant.

  • Adriana Pena

    You do not watch many crime dramas, do you? You’ll note that when someone dies in an accident (nd that someone was a prosecution witness in an incoming trial, the first thought it was murder.

    In such circumstances saying “that there are thousands of accidents all over the country, and no one suspects anything but an accident” would not carry any weight with the ones investigating. Sure, it may be an accident, and they accept the possibility, but they know that the odds are against it.

    The fact is that a) the young man was a witness about a crime b) it was crime carried out massively, and covered up massively. No way that so many incidents could not be noticed unless there was an organized cover-up. c) locking people us in insnae asylums is a good way to shut them up, and silence their testimony d) castration serves to intimidate other potential business.

    What do you think Lieutenant Columbo would deduce?

  • MJBubba

    sari (# 14), castrations have indeed been performed since ancient times, but the first hysterectomy was in 1843: http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/267273-overview#a0101

  • sari

    The first recorded hysterectomy was performed by Soranus of Ephesus in 120 C.E. (see Disorders of Menstruation, edited by Paul Marshburn, Bradley Hurst, p. 121). References to hysterectomies crop up over the years. 1843 saw the first abdominal hysterectomy performed. Soranus was a doctor who wrote several books on what we would now call gynecology.

  • Telemachus


    Columbo wouldn’t deduce anything, because Columbo is not a real person. He is a character in a TV show.

    Thank God most of our judges aren’t making their determinations from watching crime dramas.

    God bless,

  • Watchman

    This is a prime example to offer to those clamoring for the church to “get with the times” or “wake up and join the Modern Age”. The Modern Age is, when viewed decades later, often shamefully and horrifically wrong.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I still find it odd that the NYT is refering to the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands as “the Dutch Church”. I was expecting the phrase to refer to the dominant Church in the Netherlands, the Dutch Reform Church.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The article itself makes it sound like the police were the ones who did the castration. At least that is the most straightforward reading of the articles claim that “he went to the police and then was castrated.”

  • Ted

    The very journal article you quote says that Catholic theologians were responsible for legitimizing castration as a “voluntary” treatment for sexual temptation which they identified as a mental illness. These theologians sought to distinguish such castrations from eugenics by not allowing them as legal punishments and by making them “voluntary.” However, by supporting the contention that homosexual orientation is a mental illness rather than merely a human condition which implies certain temptations, these theologians voided the requirements that such castrations be “voluntary.” After all, mental illness and status as a minor robs one of the right of self-determination and places one’s fate in the hands of a parent or custodian.

    This is still relevant because as late as 1992, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith justified the denial of civil protections of homosexuals on the basis that their “objective disorder” was enough like a mental illness that it could result in the same reduction of rights.

    That’s the way the balls bounce.

  • Ted

    Watchmen, Catholic states like Florence and Spain castrated homosexual boys and men for centuries. Moreover, the castration of homosexuals in this case was not motivated by eugenics.

  • radiofreerome

    Here’s a better-documented article. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2012/mar/20/forcible-castrations-dutch-catholic-church?commentpage=1

    The article makes it clear that Catholic politicians from the Catholic People’s Party (KVP) were involved in covering up the abuse. In fact Vic Marijnen, a rising star in that party, was the director of Harreveld boarding school where Henk was raped. Marijnen was also vice-chairman of THE Dutch Catholic child protection agency. Dutch government was divided according to religion so that members of each religion were governed by members of that religion. There would not have been any independent oversight by persons of another religion.

    When Marijnen became prime minister, he sought a royal pardon for the clerical rapists. Moreover, Wim Deetman, who ran a commission investigating Catholic clerical sexual abuse in the Netherlands was a member of a coalition party including the KVP. He elected not to investigate any personal stories and omitted copious evidence. So blaming the reporter for finding the evidence years later is hardly the point. The question is “What was the reason for the malfeasance of politicians like Marijnen and Deetman?”