A Dutch Catholic institute for disabled girls said Thursday it will review 40 deaths at the children's home in the early 1950s. The review comes days after prosecutors began a criminal investigation into 34 deaths at a former Catholic boys' institute in the same town and the same time period.
The mysterious rash of deaths in the two children's homes nearly 60 years ago came to light during a search of Catholic church archives by a commission investigating possible sexual abuse.
There is no evidence that the unusual number of deaths over a three-year period in the small southern town of Heel was ever investigated for common threads or links to each other.
Guus Feron, director of the St. Anna's girls institute, said his organization will scour its archives for information about the girls, though he was unsure of what might be found. The institute routinely destroyed dossiers 15 years after residents left or died.
"We thought, gosh, there's so much attention to this, we should have a look at our archives," Feron told The Associated Press by telephone.
He said one possibility would be finding records of a contagious illness.
Eugene Baak, spokesman for the regional public prosecutor's office, said the girls' deaths are not currently thought to be suspicious, despite the higher numbers.
"Those numbers have been presented without any context," he said. But he couldn't rule out a criminal investigation if new information is discovered.
Baak said the investigating commission tipped his office with "specific information" that the death rate at St. Joseph's boys institute spiked sharply to more than 10 per year in 1952-1954, while only one or two died in the years before and afterward.
Dutch media have reported that the priest who oversaw the sick ward of St. Joseph's during those years was dismissed abruptly after a complaint by a doctor. Baak would not confirm that, or reports that the priest was then transferred to another Catholic institution in Belgium.
The priest has not been identified publicly.
Feron said that although the absolute number of deaths at St. Anna's was higher, the number of women and girls housed there was also higher _ around 1,000 compared with 400 boys at St. Joseph's. So the death rate was lower in percentage terms, and more stable.
Both institutions were for the mentally handicapped, though the girls at St. Anna's often were younger and had more serious health problems, he said.
Thea de Boer, whose twin sisters died at St. Anna's, said it was too early to draw conclusions, "but I do find it damned suspicious."
She said in an interview on NOS television that the family had been told at the time that one of the twins died of a lung infection, and she couldn't remember about the other sister.
"That's what they said. You could wonder about whether it's really true," she said, hoping for a thorough investigation soon.
St. Joseph's was closed in 1969. Successor organizations of both institutions retain links with the church, but are not staffed by priests or nuns.
Prosecutors said that even if they find evidence of crimes at St. Joseph's, they are unlikely to be prosecuted due to the passage of time. Suspects may have died, and statutes of limitations apply to crimes other than murder.
They said they have informed the dead boys' next of kin when they could be tracked down and were still alive.
The Roermond Diocese, which oversees Heel, said it welcomed the investigations, in line with an openness policy in the wake of sex abuse revelations that have rocked the church around the world in recent years.
David Clohessy, Executive Director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said that his group was "grateful that an investigation is happening, but disappointed that authorities are already assuming no prosecutions will result."
In an email, he wrote that "many law enforcement officials have been able to find novel ways to pursue criminal cases against at least some of the wrongdoers, even if some of the specific charges may have to be or seem to be lesser charges."
The commission that uncovered the deaths in Heel is conducting a church-funded investigation into some 2,000 sex abuse allegations in the Netherlands. It is expected to present its final report by year's end.