Theo van Willigenburg (1960), ethics professor in Rotterdam, has served a prison sentence for sexual contact with underaged boys. He questions this sentence in his book “Gevallen vogel” [Fallen Bird]. He also describes his fate as a sex offender and homosexual in prison.
Is he trying to condone his own stupidity here, or is his message a message we simply cannot ignore?
What is True?
Van Willigenburg writes about his (alleged) sexual contacts with underaged boys, all in the boys’ choir Roder Jongenskoor Van Willigenburg was working with at the time. He admits to one of those contacts and regrets it. An insecure choir boy of thirteen was staying at Van Willigenburg’s place. In the guest room in the evening, the boy discusses his possible homosexuality with the author. The conversation becomes intimate and the atmosphere “brooding,” as Van Willigenburg describes it. In his fantasy, he makes the boy older than he really is. This results in sexual contact. Van Willigenburg does not feel right about it and has trouble sleeping. The next day, he wants to talk to the parents, but they are on a holiday. The mother-in-law of the boy’s sister reports Van Willigenburg to the police. The police arrests him and he is put in custody. He does not deny it. The case ends in 2005 with a suspended sentence and mandatory therapy. By now, he is dismissed as a professor.
In 2009, three new cases were reported, after which he was sentenced to twenty-six months in prison. Van Willigenburg claims these reports were false, but is unable to convince the judge. He then lodges an appeal with the Dutch Supreme Court of Judicature, but loses and has to serve a prison sentence. Despite of this, he does not give up and is currently preparing a reconsideration request for the Dutch Supreme Court of Judicature.
In prison, Van Willigenburg tries to conceal that he is behind bars because of a vice case. He also tries to conceal the fact that he has been living with a man for twenty-two years. But his attempts to remain anonymous fail. When his background is discovered, things get worse. “In prison, social values and prejudices are enlarged, and gut feelings truly come to the surface.” The consequence: “Homosexuals do not have a life behind bars. Pedophiles or those who are mistaken for Pedophiles, are outlawed.” Van Willigenburg is to experience this first hand.
In his book, Van Willigenburg touches on essential questions. Think of the question what those who have experienced abuse went through. The boys - now adults - who reported him to the police (falsely, according to Van Willigenburg) want him prosecuted. The boy he has sex with in 2004 and his parents would have preferred that the police investigation and the trial had not taken place. But because someone else reported it, the investigation does take place.
Another key question is the “quest for truth” by the Public Prosecutor, something that in reality is not undertaken. According to him, the Public Prosecutor only wants to finalize the case, nothing more, nothing less. Selective evidence, the method of presentation and suggestive language are in aid of that. What the accused really has to say to get to the truth, does not seem to matter. Van Willigenburg’s lawyer opens his eyes: “Police interrogations are simply meant to collect evidence that will be used against you.”
During the mandatory therapy Van Willigenburg has to undergo in 2005, it is not about asking sincere questions and voicing heart-felt doubts, according to the author. For example, how the victim is damaged exactly. Even if you genuinely deny planning the sexual contact, it is used against you, like anything that comes close to putting it into perspective or is a possible justification of the act. Insufficient “delinquency insight.” Seemingly the therapy is not about what moves you - with all the doubt and inconsistencies that go with it. “If you don’t say the right thing, you will not be heard or are making a ‘logical error.’” Result: “[...] I should adapt as quickly as possible. In the end, I need to succeed...”
In order to survive, Van Willigenburg tries to study and write in prison. Through the work of philosophers like Kant, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Foucault, Agamben and Lyotard, Van Willigenburg reflects on his experiences. Through these new experiences, he approaches these philosophers in a different way, and gets to ask interesting questions that apply to his situation: what can we know, how do our prejudices (with the almost ever-present tunnel vision) work, how does the power of the system work, and what are our often unspoken visions of justice, punishment, retribution, proportionality, power and sexuality? Which mechanisms make the subjective human become an object the powerful can do what they want with? What roles do religion and philosophy play for someone who is in prison? Naturally, his reviews of these philosophers are incomplete and short. And one can criticize him for choosing those particular philosophers, but this does not diminish the importance of the questions he poses.
Van Willigenburg’s book is disturbing. Suppose he is right - which remains to be seen - and he did end up in prison on false accusations? What if the prosecution didn’t do a good job and didn’t do its utmost to discover the truth, but was set out to get a conviction. And what if this is symptomatic of their approach? That really would be a problem. We now know of other false convictions because of “tunnel vision.” Were these convictions incidents? Van Willigenburg does not think so. “They are inherent to a system that has made its own performance and perfection the main goal.” “I have lost all faith in the administration of justice. The prosecution is the enemy, that is clear. But I have also lost faith in courts.”
In the past, researchers have made critical comments about the way justice is administered. Van Willigenburg does this as well, but with the distinction has he knows from experience what it is like to be caught in the judicial wheels and how someone in jail becomes a number.
Hopefully, the justice department and therapist will respond to this, only to show that Van Willigenburg is making wild accusations. It is better to doubt the integrity of one man than the fundamental pillar of our society. But it remains to be seen who or what we should question. For now, the “Gevallen vogel” has an interesting story to tell.
After the publication of the book, the Nederlands Dagblad published a response from one of the victims. The victim: Van Willigenburg is selectively using the facts and is turning things round. He has managed to keep certain evidence “conveniently out of the picture.” He also states: “[Van Willigenburg] can only truly find space by pleading guilty and acknowledging the damage done to the victims. This will also force him out of his self-inflicted idea of being a victim. The withdrawal of this ill-fated book would be a first step towards building a new life for himself.”
Van Willigenburg has responded to this and claims that man who is now an adult has demanded large sums of money. Van Willigenburg never did anything with this.
When you read the sentence of the Utrecht court of justice, the victim certainly has a point. But it is precisely this sentence Van Willigenburg wants to fight. The facts are and remain unclear. Nothing is what it seems. Who is right? To find out, this book should not be withdrawn. Only though arguments and rebuttals, errors and social evils can come to light and possibly be corrected.