Dutch prosecutors are to investigate the deaths of 34 boys in a Catholic institute for the mentally disabled in the 1950s _ the latest probe in a long-running inquiry into sexual abuse in the church.
Prosecutors said Tuesday they are opening a criminal investigation into the "possibly suspicious" number of deaths over a three-year period "in view of the extent of the matter and the impact such matters have on society."
The unusually high death rate was uncovered in church archives by an independent commission investigating sexual abuse allegations in the Catholic Church. A prosecution statement gave no indication how the boys died.
Prosecutors warned, however, that if criminal activity is uncovered the statute of limitations will apply to any suspects.
The Roermond Diocese _ where the institute was based _ issued a statement saying it could not comment on the investigation, but welcomed the probe, saying it was in line with the diocese's policy of reporting such matters to prosecutors if necessary.
The deaths occurred in a former Roman Catholic boarding school and social workshop for the mentally disabled in the town of Heel in the southern Netherlands.
The case concerns "34 boys under 18 who died in the years 1952, 1953 and 1954," prosecutors said.
The commission, led by former government minister Wim Deetman, said it could make no comment because of the ongoing investigation.
Investigators said they have informed the dead boys' next of kin _ when they could be tracked down and were still alive. Prosecutors did not say how many relatives they had spoken to.
"Further investigation will also be aimed at hearing the people involved," prosecutors said without elaborating. "Depending on the results, it will be decided at a later stage whether a more extensive investigation is necessary."
Deetman's commission is investigating some 2,000 sex abuse allegations. It is expected to present its final report by year's end.