Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: An Interpretive Review of the Literature and Public Inquiry Reports

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.

Similar Posts


  1. The following is a summary of the main findings of this report, as presented by the Centre for Global Research, which produced the study. To put it mildly, it makes for interesting reading.

    Its authors, Professor Des Cahill and Dr Peter Wilkinson, are both ordained priests who resigned from church ministry in the 1970s.
    Among the report’s main findings:
    While not the direct cause, mandatory celibacy has been and remains the major precipitating risk factor for child sexual abuse. The best studies across the world show that about one in 15 priests offended, though rates differed across dioceses and among religious congregations.
    Young and vulnerable Catholic children, especially boys, were and remain at risk from psychosexually immature, sexually deprived and deeply frustrated priests and religious brothers lacking intimacy, particularly those who have not resolved their own sexual identity and whose thinking is deeply distorted and mutated towards children.
    Though homosexuality is not a direct cause of abuse, the deeply homophobic environment within the Church and its seminaries, based on the teaching that homosexuality is an intrinsically disordered state and that all gays must lead a celibate life, contributes to psychosexual immaturity.
    While there are other factors, the risk of offending has been much higher among religious brothers with little contact with women – educated at male-only schools and trained for religious life in male-only institutions before being appointed to male-only schools and living in all-male communities. The lack of the feminine and the denigration of women within Church structures is one key, underlying risk factor in the abuse.
    Priest and religious predators have benefited from easy access to children in parishes and schools, particularly those living in one-priest presbyteries and with access to a car. The risk was especially high in countries like Australia and Ireland which historically had a large number of orphanages and residential schools.
    The risk of predation is highest in residential settings. That risk continues today, particularly in India and Italy, which have a significant proportion of the Church’s remaining 9,500 orphanages.
    Pope Pius X’s 1910 decision to lower the age at which children make their first confession to seven years indirectly contributed to putting more children at risk.
    Popes and bishops created a culture of secrecy, leading to a series of gross failures in transparency, accountability, openness and trust as they endeavoured to protect the Church’s reputation as an all-holy institution above all else, even at the expense of children’s safety.

  2. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    One of the most important aspects of St. Thomas’s works, Natural Law, describes the following (words from Pope Benedict’s public address “the truth is accessible to human reason” via Youtube) :

    “…all people believers and non believers are called to recognize the needs of human nature expressed in Natural Law and guided by Positive Law issued by civil and political authorities to regulate human co-existence. He said that when the Natural Law and the responsibilities it entails are denied, it dramatically opens the way for ethical relativism at the individual level and totalitarianism at the political and state level…”

    St. Thomas believed that it is in our own human nature to act freely. That is, we human beings must exercise our natural reason to discover what is best for us in order to acheive the end to which our nature inclines.

    So Natural Law does not indicate that all priests who commit to celibacy will become paedophiles; it simply states that once the human right has been denied, the doorway opens and those whose free will has been affected the most will retaliate to the highest degree. There is never any distinction between whether this human right is forced surrendered or voluntarily surrendered.

    My own Bishop Dunn laughed at me because he told me that St. Thomas Aquinas was a huge supporter of “celibate life”. I told him “good thing” because had he not been a supporter of celibate life, after writing what he wrote in Natural Law, he would have been defrocked or better yet tried for heresy and more than likely killed. Wise are those who say what they please but never bite the hand that feeds them.

    So by even stating anywhere that “celibacy” is a condition of “employment”, not only are they in apparent opposition to the Convention on Genocide, the UN Charter on Human Rights, but it appears their own Natural Laws, which by virtue of them being appointed by St. Thomas, have greater authority than any Canon Law that a Pope has seen fit to bring forth since the 13th century.


    The preceding is from an email I sent to my lawyer December 12, 2011. Shortly after this, I had two telephone interviews with Jeff Anderson and Associates in St-Paul, Minnesota. It is very important that your brothers in Australia move this from “reform” to “legal reform” at this stage. My request for a class-action against canon 227.1 was denied. Based on these findings, it may be time to start that conversation again.

  3. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    In my opinion, it would be an enrichment for the Church to have both celibate and married clergy.
    I am not convinced that we have sufficient information to conclude that mandatory celibacy is the major precipitating risk factor for child sexual abuse. We need more comprehensive information about the incidence of child sexual abuse in society. Since the majority of abuse takes place within families, we cannot say in those circumstances that celibacy is a precipitating factor.
    Historian Philip Jenkins says that the rate of abuse among Catholic clergy is not higher than in other churches.
    The only reservation the Australian study mentions in relation to the Murphy report is on page 82: “She (Marie Keenan) further makes the important point that the episcopal non-performance needed to be compared with the reporting practices of other organisations caring for children.”
    If this represents the approach of the Australian study to all the 26 reports reviewed, it would seem to indicate that the reports have been accepted without critical review. A lot more work is required.

  4. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Men and women tied to an unnatural law is clericalism at its finest, Pádraig McCarthy @ 3. What enrichment does it bring the Church when the married Anglican Priest (now Catholic) lives a life that is perhaps sought after by most of active clergy bound to celibacy? We have children and support them from their infancy on, only to see those same children return the favour when we are in our later years. Can we honestly discriminate against people because they are not “Anglican-turned-Catholic priest”?

    Has the Catholic Church become the very thing St. Thomas warned us about? A reward for obedience is OK, I guess if you are trying to build a totalitarian regime. I’d like to see greater rewards for generous giving and a celibate life prevents this from happening.

  5. Joe O'Leary says:

    “Young and vulnerable Catholic children, especially boys, were and remain at risk from psychosexually immature, sexually deprived and deeply frustrated priests and religious brothers lacking intimacy, particularly those who have not resolved their own sexual identity and whose thinking is deeply distorted and mutated towards children.”

    Isn’t this the language of hysteria and moral panic? Part of the tsunami of hatred in which “pedophiles” are being drowned, and which is spiked with hatred.

    “Pope Pius X’s 1910 decision to lower the age at which children make their first confession to seven years indirectly contributed to putting more children at risk.”

    This sounds ridiculous, and one wonders what research it could be based on.

  6. Mary Vallely says:

    I agree with you, Joe @ 5, that it seems a bit ridiculous to cast any blame on Pope Pius X for his decision to lower the age of First Confession but I think there is truth in that first paragraph you quoted. No one is saying that ALL priests were psycho sexually immature but many of those who abused were, of course. We cannot deny that there is something badly wrong in Maynooth and other seminaries at present and that there is a great need for in-depth investigation and indeed a re-examination of the whole area of priestly training. Is the model of male celibates only presenting for priesthood the best model? I think not. I believe sincerely that it is no longer fit for purpose.

    I disagree that this is “the language of hysteria and moral panic.” It is not a sweeping generalisation but to me a likely reason behind the small number of priests guilty of child sexual abuse. I would take issue with the author’s use of the words “and remain at risk” as certainly in this country great strides have been made towards creating very good child protection policies. Perhaps in poorer counties where there has been no investigation this might still be the case but I could see how that accusation of “children…. remain at risk” might cause anger.

  7. Kieran Tapsell says:

    The research is based on Stephen Haliczer’s book (1996) Sexuality in the Confessional: A Sacrament Profaned, and Rafael Carrasco’s Inquisicion y Represion Sexual en Valencia: Historia de los Sodomitas, 1565–1785, both of whom studied the records of the Spanish Inquisition. The concern of the Church about soliciting sex in the confessional is revealed by papal and council decrees in 1227, 1622 and 1741 and by the introduction of confessional boxes to discourage it. The Inquisition dealt with many cases of solicitation, most of them with women, sometimes men, but rarely young children because confession was only available to Catholics after the age of 12-14. Haliczer found that 6.3% of the 223 cases he studied involved victims under the age of 15. This is a significant figure given the time when children started going to confession. The lowering of the age to 7 presented those sexually attracted to children with opportunities for grooming, and the Australian Royal Commission has found that such solicitation did take place with prepubescent children in fairly recent times. Pius XI adopted a two-pronged approach to ward off potential scandals. He issued new regulations for screening candidates for the priesthood, and if a “bad apple” did slip through, he imposed the church’s highest form of secrecy over all information about his abuse. That policy was confirmed and expanded by every pope since. It is still imposed by Art. 30 of Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela of John Paul II, as revised by Benedict XVI in 2010. The Cahill/Wilkinson report is very convincing on this.

  8. Kieran Tapsell says:

    In regard to Padraig McCarthy’s comment, the Australian study did have other criticisms of the Murphy Report on page 81: “The Murphy Report did not really examine the underlying issues as to why the offending priests behaved as they did, why the bishops behaved as they did, and why the Vatican behaved as it did. It did not put the abuse, or the Archdiocese’s response to the abuse, into a systemic context.” On page 85, it stated: “The Murphy Report into the Dublin Archdiocese had an adversarial mind-set for an inquisitorial task where ‘witnesses’ became ‘defendants’ without legal protections, and errors in defendants’ testimonies were not corrected for the final report. It failed to mention, let alone analyse, the legal advice bishops had received in handling the abuse disclosures. Other proper legal processes were not observed, and from a social science perspective its sampling technique was flawed. This all led to different versions of the facts.” That does not sound like uncritical acceptance.

  9. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    #8 Kieran Tapsell
    Thanks, Kieran. I must have been half asleep to miss that!

Join the Discussion

Keep the following in mind when writing a comment

  • Your comment must include your full name, and email. (email will not be published). You may be contacted by email, and it is possible you might be requested to supply your postal address to verify your identity.
  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger. Comments containing vulgarities, personalised insults, slanders or accusations shall be deleted.
  • Keep to the point. Deliberate digressions don't aid the discussion.
  • Including multiple links or coding in your comment will increase the chances of it being automati cally marked as spam.
  • Posts that are merely links to other sites or lengthy quotes may not be published.
  • Brevity. Like homilies keep you comments as short as possible; continued repetitions of a point over various threads will not be published.
  • The decision to publish or not publish a comment is made by the site editor. It will not be possible to reply individually to those whose comments are not published.