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Sex abuse in Catholic institutions: key questions for the royal commission

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Monday, 3 April 2017


This . . . can only be interpreted for what it is: a massive failure on the part the Catholic Church in Australia to protect children from abusers and predators, a misguided determination by leaders at the time to put the interests of the Church ahead of the most vulnerable and, a corruption of the Gospel the Church seeks to profess. As Catholics we hang our heads in shame . Frances Sullivan, CEO, (Catholic) Truth, Justice and Healing Council.

A key official report for one Catholic diocese found that:

the diocese's preoccupations in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse, at least until the mid-1990s, were the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church, and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities ......and (the diocese) did its best to avoid any application of the law of the State". The report concluded that there is "no doubt that clerical child sexual abuse was covered up.

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So which Catholic diocese do you think the report related to? Ballarat? Newcastle? Sydney?

No. The extracts come from the Murphy Commission's report into child sex abuse within the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin released in 2009. Investigations into clerical sexual abuse of Catholic children in the US came up with broadly similar conclusions, and you don't need to be Nostradamus to foresee that Australia's Royal Commission is going to come up with much the same findings. The similarity in the Catholic Church's behaviour across countries stands out, and suggests a systemic problem along with an organised cover-up world-wide.

At the request of the Royal Commission, the Australian Catholic Church has released survey data revealing that 7% of priests, working between 1950 and 2009, have been accused of child sex crimes. The figures were even higher for some orders of religious brothers: 40% for the Brothers of St John of God, 22% for the Christian Brothers, and 20% for the Marist Brothers.

Between 1980 and 2015, 4,444 alleged incidents of child sexual abuse relating to 93 Catholic Church authorities in Australia were reported. The average age of victims was 10.5 for girls and 11.6 for boys, and (notably) the overwhelming majority were male.

These statistics on abuse have been criticised as "dodgy" but are probably still broadly indicative. The statistics are based only on reported allegations, and they also do not include complaints made that did not have follow-up or investigation. The survey had also apparently sought responses from 75 church authorities but only showed results for 26. Any authority with fewer than 20 claims of abuse has been left out. A (partially?) offsetting factor is that not all allegations made turn out to be true, and a number of allegations were made that were clearly false. There was also no time limitation in relation to the date of the alleged incidents of abuse. The earliest incidence of alleged abuse reported was in the 1920s and the latest was after 2010.

While most of the eventual findings of the Royal Commission are predictable (even at this early stage), it is worth highlighting areas where clear answers specific to the Catholic Church should be demanded by the community.

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The first area, where a clear answer is required, is why reported abuse rates were so high for the Catholic Church. A related issue is why some religious orders had much higher rates of abusing than others.

The disproportionate targeting of boys in part probably reflects proximity and opportunity. Catholic schools and boarding institutions are generally single sex, and historically had same sex staff. Boarding schools and institutions provided the greatest opportunities for abusers, which also explains why religious orders running such places had relatively more offenders.

An analysis of the causes of paedophilia within the Catholic priesthood and religious (that I found insightful and very credible) was provided to the Royal Commission by Dr Christopher Geraghty in his submission and evidence. Dr Geraghty describes being "hijacked into a seminary" around 1950 at the age of 12 (he attended a boarding school at Springwood, NSW for boys intending to become priests), and was later ordained at the age of 23. He claims that the system "cut his psycho-sexual development off at the knees".

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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