Cardinal Simonis: archbishop who ruled the church in turbulent times

Adrian Johannes Simonis was archbishop of Utrecht since 1983. In 1985 he was appointed cardinal by Pope John Paul II.

Initially he was known as a orthodox and conservative church leader. Later he was somewhat more open to modernizing the Roman Catholic faith and entered into debate on issues such as euthanasia and abortion. In the latter days of his cardinalship he became discredited when he claimed that the Church leadership had never been aware of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.


Simonis, born in 1931, began his ecclesiastical career in 1951, when he went to the seminaries of Hageveld and Warmond to become a priest. Six years later he was ordained a priest. Then he was appointed chaplain, first of the parish of St. Victor in Waddinxveen, later of the H.H. Martelaren parish in Rotterdam.

In 1969 Simonis was installed as a canon. After the death of Bishop Janssen in 1970 he was appointed Bishop of Rotterdam. This appointment of the orthodox Simonis was controversial and was seen as a direct intervention of the Vatican in the liberal church province of the Netherlands.

According to the normal procedure, a bishop was appointed on the recommendation of the Episcopal College. Simonis’ name did not appear on the list of candidates that the college had submitted to the pope. With the appointment of Simonis the Vatican broke through the decisive unanimity of the episcopal college, which, under the leadership of Cardinal Alfrink, had allowed all kinds of radical changes that did not please Rome.


Twelve years later, in 1983, Simonis became Archbishop of Utrecht. In that position, he headed the Dutch Church provinces and chaired the Dutch Bishops’ Conference.

Especially 1985 was an important year for Simonis: he was appointed cardinal and shortly afterwards the Pope’s turbulent visit to the Netherlands followed. It was a time in which the Netherlands was without doubt a rebellious church province, where much criticism was voiced about the policy of John Paul. Within the Catholic Church in the Netherlands there was open discussion about homosexuals, contraception, female priests and the abolition of celibacy. That went far too far for the Vatican.

Although Simonis was still considered conservative in 1970, this was not reflected in his policy in the archdiocese of Utrecht. He gave his blessing to various modern changes and initiatives and gave a series of lectures on Freemasonry and Religious Societies against the will of the Church.


Later Simonis often spoke out on social issues. Among other things, he entered into debate with ministers on sensitive subjects such as euthanasia and abortion. He opposed the idea of the 24-hour economy and clashed with then Prime Minister Kok.

Simonis felt that Kok and his purple cabinet worked out every form of religion in society and that there was no longer any talk with the church leaders.

In 2006, at the age of 75, he submitted his letter of resignation to the Vatican and in April 2007 it was announced that his request had been granted. At his farewell he was appointed Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Orange-Nassau and was granted an audience with Queen Beatrix.

In 2010, three years after his farewell, Simonis came into disrepute when, in the television programme Pauw & Witteman, he made the statement ‘Wir haben es nicht gewusst’ when it was about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. This statement, which after the Second World War was often used by Germans in connection with the Holocaust, was seen as the pinnacle of tastelessness and hypocrisy.

Moreover, in spite of his statement, it later appeared that Simonis had known; in 1991, he had protected a priest who had been convicted of the sexual abuse of minors. Simonis made sure he got another job, after which the man abused children again.

After the publication of the report of the Deetman Commission, which investigated sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Simonis apologized. “This should never have happened,” he said. “It did happen anyway.”