Australian Catholic Church Falls Short on Safeguards for Children, Study Finds
A study that examines child sexual abuse worldwide in the Roman Catholic Church has found that the Australian church has done less to safeguard children in its care than its counterparts in similar countries have.
The report, released on Wednesday by the Center for Global Research at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, also found that the church’s requirement that priests be celibate was a major risk factor for abuse. And it said that the possibility of abuse in Catholic residential institutions, like orphanages, should be getting more attention, especially in developing countries.
Experts said the report could put pressure on Pope Francis, and particularly the church in Australia, to do more to prevent abuse. The Australian church was rocked in June when Cardinal George Pell, an Australian who is one of the pope’s top advisers, became the highest-ranking Roman Catholic prelate to be formally charged with sexual offenses.
Desmond Cahill, the report’s lead author, said its findings pointed to an urgent need to rethink the priesthood in the 21st century. A professor of intercultural studies at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, he said the church should reconsider the celibacy requirement for priests.
“The Catholic Church is in a state of crisis, and pressure has to be put on the Holy See to take the necessary steps to change,” Professor Cahill said.
In nearly 400 pages, the report traces the history of child sexual abuse in the global church and tries to identify factors that have contributed to it, with a particular focus on Australia.
Professor Cahill and the report’s co-author, Dr. Peter Wilkinson, a researcher in Catholic culture, are both ordained priests who resigned from church ministry in the 1970s but remain practicing Catholics. Professor Cahill said that while in the ministry, he worked alongside some of Australia’s most abusive priests, but did not realize it until decades later.
“Our backgrounds have allowed us not only to understand in depth the workings of the church in Australia, but also the Holy See in Rome, where we both studied at postgraduate level in pontifical universities,” he said.
The authors acknowledge that the Australian church has made progress in dealing with abuse, particularly in its schools, but the report found that it had “lagged significantly behind other comparable countries in relation to developing safeguarding policies and protocols” to protect children.
For example, the Australian church has not appointed representatives in each parish charged with safeguarding children or provided “safe environment training” to all Catholic employees, the report said.
“Any suggestion that the Catholic Church in Australia has led the way in child protection is not sustainable in face of the initiatives in other countries nor has there been much accountability or evaluation in Australia,” the report said.
Last month, a commission that has been investigating the Australian church’s response to sexual abuse recommended a series of legislative and policy changes, one of which would require priests who are told about sexual abuse in confessions to report it to the authorities.
That proposal began a heated debate, in which Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne said he would rather go to jail than violate the confidentiality of the confessional. The report released on Wednesday cites several historical instances in which the church allowed exceptions to that confidentiality requirement.
Professor Cahill and Dr. Wilkinson have been consultants for the Australian commission, the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It is due to release the final report from its yearslong inquiry later this year, and is expected to recommend further measures for protecting children.
Dr. Wilkinson said that the Australian church was in dire need of self-examination. He said it was “going nowhere except possibly down.”
“To regain trust, not only within the Catholic community, but trust in the church within the nation, the church has to undertake a metanoia — that’s a complete transformation, a change of heart and culture,” he said.
As the global church’s sex abuse scandal has unfolded, attention has tended to focus on offending priests in parishes, the report by Professor Cahill and Dr. Wilkinson said. But it said a “parallel tragedy” in Catholic residential institutions, like orphanages and boarding schools, was a cause for major concern, especially in the developing world. The church operates more than 9,000 orphanages worldwide.
The report documents patterns of past abuse at such facilities in Australia, where the church no longer runs orphanages, and in other countries, based on inquiries conducted by governments and the church. It concludes that if such trends prevail elsewhere, “one must fear for the safety” of children at Catholic residential institutions.
“The Holy See does not seem to be aware of the issue or chooses to ignore it,” the report said. It singles out India and Italy, where the church operates many residential centers, mainly orphanages.
The celibacy requirement for priests is a “major precipitating risk factor for child sexual abuse,” according to the report. In Eastern Rite churches where priests are allowed to marry, though only before ordination, the “offending rate is low, probably negligible,” the report said.
The Rev. Joseph Palacios, a Catholic priest and sociology professor at the University of Southern California, called the report a “highly professional study” with “a very good grasp of the historical and theological undercurrents of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.”
He praised the study for its analysis of schools and residential institutions run by religious orders, which he said could “provide a safe space” for potential abusers. “Coupled with the psychological trust that children have with teachers and providers, these institutions become very dangerous places for sexually and psychologically underdeveloped religious personnel,” he said.
Professor Cahill said he began work on the report in 2012, and expanded its scope in 2014 after participating in an international workshop in northern Spain, which brought together leading researchers into child sex abuse in Catholic settings. Dr. Wilkinson joined the study in 2015.
Kieran Tapsell, a retired lawyer who wrote a book about the church’s abuse scandals, said the report was noteworthy for synthesizing a great deal of material and viewing it from sociological, psychological and theological perspectives.
“That hasn’t been brought together before,” he said.