Abuse in Catholic care is worse in New Zealand than Australia

Apr 18, 2021

 The New Zealand Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care and in the Care of Faith-based Institutions has revealed that the problem of abuse in New Zealand’s Catholic institutions appears to be much worse than the problem revealed in Australia’s Catholic institutions.

In February 2018 the New Zealand Government set up a Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in Care. Initially the Terms of Reference included only State institutions but, as a result of strong public pressure, in November 2018 the terms were extended to include abuse in Faith-based institutions. However, rather than having a single concurrent inquiry into abuse in both types of institution, the Government opted for two separate and sequential inquiries, despite calls for a single concurrent inquiry, and allocated NZD56 million to the Commission for a 4-year inquiry.

Interim Report: Damages to survivors and society

In December 2020 the Royal Commission published an Interim Report titled, in the Maori language, Tāwharautia: Pūrongo o te Wā with its leitmotif the promise of ‘shelter’ (Tāwharautia). But the victim-survivors of abuse in Faith-based institutions would find little shelter in its contents, for their harrowing stories of abuse recounted during the Faith-based Redress Hearings of November/December 2020 have little resonance in this Report and the marked force of their testimonies is absent. They might justifiably feel that they were not really heard.

The Interim Report estimated that the cost to an individual from abuse in care over the course of their lifetime is NZD857,000, while the estimated cost to society for the abuse in care between 1950-2019 is up to NZD217 billion.

These estimates were provided to the Commission by hired consultants Martin Jenkins, who also calculated that there were 250,000 survivors of abuse in State and Faith-based care between 1950 and 2019.

As appalling as this figure appears, a key stakeholder in the Royal Commission, the Network of Survivors of Abuse in Faith-based Institutions and Their Supporters Network, believes that it is inaccurate and far too conservative.

The consultants do not appear to have taken full account of the number of children abused in Catholic schools – accepted as places of ‘care’ in the Terms of Reference – over the 1950-2019 period, and have overlooked the fact that, in Australia, 60 per cent of the sexual abuse of children was perpetrated in Catholic schools.

Catholic records destroyed

To date, the Royal Commission has received 1119 complaints about abuse during the period 1950-2019, and more than 800 have come from victim-survivors who were abused in Catholic institutions. These numbers are almost certainly a gross underestimation, for the majority of Catholic records have been lost or destroyed.

One example of record loss is the Society of Mary, a religious congregation of priests and brothers caring for children in New Zealand since 1838. It could only provide detailed records from the 1990s, since all its records for the previous 150 years had either been destroyed or gone missing. Other Catholic entities had similar record lacunae.

Despite the gaps in available data, the problem of abuse in New Zealand’s Catholic institutions appears to be much worse than the problem revealed in Australia’s Catholic institutions. New Zealand’s Catholic population of 470,000 (2018 Census) is less than one-tenth (8.9%) that of Australia’s Catholic population of 5,291,817 (2016 Census), so the 800 complaints made by victim-survivors of New Zealand’s Catholic institutions, compared to the 4444 complaints made by victim-survivors in Australia’s Catholic institutions would suggest that the problem of abuse in New Zealand’s Catholic institutions has been almost twice as bad as in the Australian equivalent.

It was no surprise, therefore, when the New Zealand Herald in its 19 December 2020 editorial called for immediate and urgent action:

“This is a national tragedy and requires a recovery effort of monumental proportions. To raise our vulnerable and damaged citizens out of this misery must surely be given priority.”

While the Royal Commission is not expected to table its Final Report and recommendations until January 2023, it has already heard enough evidence to act sooner.  To look away now is to be complicit in continuing the abuse tragedy.

Treating clergy with velvet gloves

There are outstanding people working within the Royal Commission and the Network has constructive working relationships with many. But the tone in the Commission is set by the Chair, and recently it has been deeply troubling.

At the conclusion of the evidence provided by Anglican Archbishops Richardson and Tamihere on 22 March 2021, the Chair addressed them with this velvet glove approach:

“The response from survivors to the testimony that has been given by the churches to date has been positive. So, they have accepted your apologies, heard your apologies with gratitude and relief and I think that we can take heart from that and you can take heart from that. So, if you are saying the survivors are at the heart of it, survivors are saying thank you for coming, engaging, and making the concessions, the very brave concessions.”

The Chair’s similar words to Catholic Cardinal John Dew on 29 March 2021 had the same effect on survivors:

“It, I know, has been painful. I have watched the pain on the faces of all of the church people. I know it’s painful and it’s taken great courage, to commit to the Royal Commission, and to contribute.  And to you personally, thank you for enduring the time in the witness box, we are most grateful for your time, and we wish you and all your colleagues the best for Holy Week.”

Network survivors were dumbfounded. Whereas they had suffered decades of unimaginable pain, church officials had only had to put up with a few hours of often mild questioning before returning to their privileged lifestyles.

Dr Michelle Mulvihill, the Sydney-based psychotherapist who worked for years with victims of the St John of God Brothers and will likely give evidence in the August 2021 Public Hearing focused on the Brothers’ Marylands institution in Christchurch, was equally horrified and observed:

“This Royal Commission cannot deliver action on sexual violence towards children nor on proper restitution for vulnerable adults who have been abused. They have told us to our faces: they simply do not understand how.”

The evidence now before the Commission makes it crystal clear that those responsible for the institutions where carers abused innocent children and vulnerable adults cannot be trusted to assess the very havoc that they created. The internal institutional systems and processes which they set up to protect the children and vulnerable adults in their care have proven to be disastrous failures.

What is required to bring justice and redress for New Zealand survivors is action NOW.

Real need demands immediate solutions. Further delay is not an option. The Phase 2 March 2021 Public Hearing has to be seen as a make-or-break moment in an ongoing tragedy.

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