Dutch bishops announce sex abuse investigation

THe Hague, Netherlands - Dutch Catholic bishops announced an independent inquiry Tuesday into allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests at church schools, and apologized to victims.

"Bishops and religious workers offer their deep-felt sympathy and apologies to those who were victims of abuse in Catholic boarding schools," the Dutch Bishops Conference said in a statement released after the top bishops met in the central city of Zeist.

The inquiry follows more than 200 reports of sexual abuse filed with the Church victims' support organization Hulp en Recht (Help and Law) in recent days.

"The number of reports of abuse in former Catholic educational establishments requires further investigation," the bishops said.

The probe will be led by a Protestant - former government minister and ex-mayor of The Hague Wim Deetman.

"We looked for somebody from outside the Roman Catholic circle to show that we are striving for as open an investigation as possible and that we as Catholic Church do not want to hide anything," said Gerard de Korte, bishop of the northern cities of Leeuwarden and Groningen.

According to the Dutch Central Bureau for Statistics, 29 percent of the Dutch population of 16 million identified themselves as Catholics in 2008, making it the largest religion in the country. There are dozens of Catholic high schools spread across the country.

The scandal started with allegations last month of repeated incidents within a single cloister but has quickly spread.

"It is a painful conclusion and a sin that must be confessed that a number of priests and church workers have failed to carefully associate with children and youths, particularly halfway through the last century," the Dutch Priests' Conference said in the statement.

It was not immediately clear how long the investigation would take.

Previous abuse cases have been publicized in the Netherlands, as in other countries, but the Dutch Justice Ministry has so far addressed them individually.