The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has been dominated by abuses perpetrated in the Roman Catholic Church. Its final report bears enduring witness to abuse on a horrific scale.
The commission constitutes the most sophisticated and thorough investigation yet into abuse within the Catholic Church globally. Its recommendations are breathtakingly bold. They provide the most comprehensive pathway so far, to redress and prevent abuse in an institution that has had endemic and catastrophic failures in this area.
As journalist David Marr astutely commented, the Royal Commission has been an exercise in “having an inquiry into the Catholic Church without having an inquiry into the Catholic Church”. Thirty of the 57 case studies were of religious institutions; half of these focused on the Catholic Church. Almost 60% of survivor testimonies in private sessions disclosed abuse in religious institutions. Of these, 61.8% alleged abuse in Catholic institutions.
This equates to more than four times the number of allegations associated with any other religious group.
The scale and nature of abuse uncovered in Catholic institutions is staggering. Between 1980 and 2015, 4,444 people reported allegations of child sexual abuse to Catholic authorities. There were 1,880 Catholic leaders subject to allegations of abuse in over 1,000 separate institutions. In total, 7% of Catholic priests in Australia between 1950 and 2010 were accused of child sexual abuse. In a reversal of the gendered pattern of abuse in the general population, 78% of Catholic abuse claimants were male; 22% were female.
The commission has referred at least 309 matters relating to abuse in the Catholic institutions to the police. Twenty-seven prosecutions have begun, and 75 cases are currently being investigated.
While this picture of abuse in Catholic institutions is horrific, it should not be surprising. The scale and nature of abuse uncovered in Australia corresponds closely to that uncovered in international inquiries in the US, Canada, and Ireland. We should expect that the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in England and Wales will uncover a similarly tragic picture there when it reports.
In common with local and international inquiries into abuse in the Catholic Church, the Royal Commission identified:
failures to report alleged perpetrators to civil authorities; failures to use available canon law measures to discipline perpetrators; the transfer of alleged perpetrators from parish to parish and between dioceses; sending alleged perpetrators for treatment but failing to remove them from ministry; and failures to appreciate the devastating impacts of child sexual abuse on victims and their families.
From the 1990s, religious organisations began to develop protocols for responding to allegations of abuse, including redress schemes. For some survivors, engaging with these schemes was a positive experience that contributed to their healing. But for many, “their experiences were difficult, frightening or confusing”, and exacerbated their original trauma.
The recommendations the Royal Commission has made related to the Catholic Church are numerous and far reaching.
The most significant include:
widespread changes to the laws and culture of governance and leadership in the Catholic Church to combat the secrecy and cover-ups that have characterised the church’s responses to allegations of abuse;
that the Vatican reform significant areas of canon law to better enable internal discipline of offending clergy;
that celibacy become a voluntary, rather than compulsory, aspect of ordination or profession to Catholic ministry;
improvements in the selection and screening of candidates for ministry;
increased oversight, support, and ongoing training of people in ministry;
that state and territory governments amend laws concerning mandatory reporting to child protection authorities to include people in religious ministry;
that laws concerning mandatory reporting to child protection authorities should not exempt people in religious ministry from being required to report on the basis of information disclosed in confession;
that each jurisdiction in Australia introduce legislation to create a “failure to report” offence targeted at child sexual abuse in institutional contexts, including failure to report on information derived from the confessional;
the establishment of nationally consistent, reportable conduct schemes that include religious institutions;
improvements to redress schemes and avenues for civil litigation;
improvements to information sharing by the church, internally, and with statutory authorities, in relation to offending clergy and religious.
The Catholic Church is at once a monolithic global institution, and an institution with multiple, relatively independent jurisdictions. This means that while the report’s recommendations for the church are comprehensive, their implementation is by no means simple.
It will take significant courage, effort, and expense on the part of many to effect the recommended reforms. The church’s immediate response did not sound particularly promising on embracing these recommendations.
The Royal Commission has called for five annual reports on the implementation of these recommendations to be publicly tabled following its conclusion this year. Pressure will need to be brought to bear on the church to comply with the commission’s recommendations and reporting schedule.
In light of the church’s catastrophic failures of care, documented in this report, its survival as a public institution is dependent on responding adequately to this historic commission.
Authors: Timothy W. Jones, Senior Lecturer in History, La Trobe University