‘Catastrophic failures’ in Catholic Church says child abuse Royal Commission

RESPONSE: Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Denis Hart speaking on the release of the child abuse royal commission's final report. Picture: Joe Armao
RESPONSE: Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Denis Hart speaking on the release of the child abuse royal commission's final report. Picture: Joe Armao

THE Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has made public its massive, 17-volume final report, revealing what it describes as multiple and persistent failings of institutions to keep children safe, cultures of secrecy and cover-up, and the devastating affects of abuse.

The commission looked at a wide range of institutions in both the religious and secular worlds and found that almost 60 per cent of the abuse it discovered occurred in religiously run institutions, with more than 60 per cent of religious abuse taking place in Catholic schools, homes or churches.

“We have concluded that there were catastrophic failures of leadership of Catholic Church authorities over many decades, particularly before the 1990s,” the commission said.

The commission has made 189 new recommendations, with 26 of these pertaining to the Catholic Church.  It wants Australian Catholic bishops to push the Vatican to make a number of changes to canon law, including the recognition of abuse as a crime against the child, rather than a “moral failing” of the perpetrator. The commission said celibacy was “not a direct cause but a contributing factor” in clerical abuse and it is recommending the bishops ask the Vatican to “consider introducing voluntary celibacy for diocesan clergy”.

It also recommends new “failure to report” laws, with no exemption for information learned in confessional.

The Anglican church was the subject of five recommendations, including the adoption of a uniform framework to ensure bishops and former bishops are “accountable to an appropriate authority . . . in relation to their response to complaints of child sexual abuse”.

Looking more broadly, the commission’s first recommendation is for a regularly conducted “nationally representative prevalence study” to establish the extent of child mistreatment, both in and out of institutions.

It wants Canberra and the states and territories to formally respond to the report within six months, saying what they intend to do with its recommendations. It wants a review to be held in 10 years time and is calling for a national memorial to be built in Canberra to the victims and survivors of institutional child sexual abuse.

It says Canberra should develop a national strategy to prevent child sexual abuse, and wants all Australian institutions to adopt a 10-point set of Child Safe Standards drawn up by the commission. It wants these standards adopted by the Council of Australian Governments and for the federal government to establish a National Office for Child Safety.

It wants a national curriculum for online safety education in schools, stronger mandatory reporting standards, improved institutional responses to complaints, and a national information exchange scheme for the purpose of “preventing, identifying and responding to child sexual abuse in institutional contexts”.

The commission has been a monumental five-year effort, employing 680 people and consuming $342.3 million of a $372.8-million budget. Federal parliament is considering legislation for a national redress scheme.

The commission says abuse is not simply an historical problem. Although it heard of cases stretching back 90 years, child abuse in institutions was “occurring today”. In its private sessions it heard from children “as young as seven years of age who had been recently abused”, while other “abused children were still attending school”.

“The Commissioners have listened to the personal stories of over 8000 survivors and read over 1000 written accounts,” the report says. “Most are stories of personal trauma and many are of personal tragedy.  It is impossible not to share the anger many survivors have felt when we understand that they were so deeply betrayed by people they were entitled to trust. Many speak of a childhood lost, innocence stolen, and a life journey irreparably and adversely changed.”

Summing up its 30 case studies into religious institutions, commission said: “They revealed that many religious leaders knew about allegations of child sexual abuse yet failed to take effective action. Some  ignored allegations and did not respond at all. Some treated alleged perpetrators leniently and failed to address the obvious risks they posed to children. Some concealed abuse and shielded perpetrators from accountability. Institutional reputations and individual perpetrators were prioritised over victims and their families.”

Victims of abuse by religious figures often believed their abuser was “God’s representative on earth”, and some children felt they had been “abused by God, or that God must have willed the abuse to happen”.

Catholic claims data from 1980 to 2015 identified 1880 known alleged perpetrators, with another 530 whose identities were unknown: 32 per cent were religious brothers, 30 per cent were priests and 29 per cent were lay people.

Anglican complaints data identified 569 known alleged perpetrators with another 133 not identified: 50 per cent were lay people and 43 per cent clergy.

“Tens of thousands of children have been sexually abused in many Australian institutions,” the commission said. “We will never know the true number.

“The sexual abuse of children has occurred in almost every type of institution where children reside or attend for educational, recreational, sporting, religious or cultural activities. Some institutions have had multiple abusers who sexually abused multiple children. It is not a case of a few ‘rotten apples’.”

The commission said the Catholic response to allegations of child sexual abuse was “remarkably and disturbingly similar” from diocese to diocese.

Francis Sullivan, head of the Catholic Church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council, said the commission’s recommendations “seem to be very sensible and practical”.

“The work of rebuilding trust and confidence in the Catholic Church will be hard and will take many years,” Mr Sullivan said. “This report and its findings provide, at the very least, a way in which this can be achieved. It is essential . . . the Catholic Church . . . commits to the serious business ahead.”


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