FOUR or five years ago it was common for people to ask me a question, given the amount being written at the time about institutional child sexual abuse in the Hunter region, and particularly the Catholic Church.
Was the Hunter region the worst place in Australia for child sex abuse in churches?
My answer, before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was established in November, 2012, was always the same.
No. I thought the incidence of abuse in the major churches was probably similar to that of other areas, but a combination of media reporting and police prosecutions had encouraged victims to come forward so the Hunter appeared to be more of a hotspot.
But that was before the royal commission, the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry, more prosecutions and more media reporting. That was before further revelations over that time about the number of offenders within the Catholic and Anglican churches and, more disturbingly, knowledge of offending by senior clerics in the Hunter.
That was before a royal commission case study into the Anglican Church’s disgraceful and callous treatment of child sex victims at a children’s home, in some cases by people who had oversight of abuse issues in Newcastle diocese.
It was before the United Protestants acknowledged appalling child sexual abuse at its Woodlands boys home at Wallsend, and the terrible systems failures that allowed Steven Larkins to abuse children for years.
It was also before seeing Professor Patrick Parkinson’s warning to Australian Anglican bishops about a “kind of network” of alleged child sex offenders originating from the Hunter and Morpeth theological college, in a report describing the figure as “disturbing”.
After all that, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say the Hunter, as a region, has experienced a greater incidence of child sexual abuse across institutions, and a greater concentration of offenders and those who did not stop the offending, than anywhere else in Australia, based on what has been revealed at the royal commission.
That is a statement made only to acknowledge it is fitting that the region that campaigned for a royal commission knew in its bones there was reason to do so.
The back-to-back Hunter case studies into the Anglican and Catholic churches will reveal similarities, and significant differences. In some respects the Anglican public hearing will reveal a darker, uglier story.
The Catholic Church’s sexual abuse history is, by and large, a history of actions and inaction by clergy and church hierarchy responding to child sexual abuse according to church law. It was – and still is in much of the world – written in black and white that allegations should not be reported to authorities. To put it roughly, priests and bishops could justify silence and secrecy because they were just following orders.
In the Anglican Church those laws aren’t there and many lay people – often quite prominent in their communities – are in senior, decision-making church roles. There were many more individual decisions made where morality and child protection took a back seat to status.
Critics are quick to jump on excuses to deny or minimise child sexual abuse. One of the more common is that dead people aren’t able to defend themselves when allegations are raised. Could I suggest that that is an unintended consequence of the silence and secrecy of the past, but it is not a valid reason to silence victims now.
To change culture, issues need to be brought into the light.