The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses of Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church.

Jul 3, 2014

Yesterday, in Eureka Street, Fr Frank Brennan SJ commented on the first interim report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses of Child Sexual Abuse. He said:

‘Before Prime Minister Gillard announced the commission, I said that the Catholic Church needed help, in part because there seemed to be a vast discrepancy in the statistics when it came to the number of abuse claims in the Catholic Church when compared with other Churches and institutions which care for vulnerable children. The Commission has not yet come up with any answers or theories about the discrepancy. But its own statistics are frightening and shaming. The commission has provided a safe space for victims to come forward and tell their stories. The commission refers to victims as survivors. 60% of the institutions where survivors reported being abused were faith-based institutions (1,033 of 1,719 institutions). Where abuse occurred in a faith-based institution, 68% of survivors reported that the abuse occurred in a Catholic institution while only 12% reported that the abuse occurred in an Anglican institution. Other churches reported lesser figures. No doubt there were many more Catholic institutions set up for vulnerable children. But that goes nowhere close to providing a complete explanation for the shameful discrepancy. It seems that about 40% of all victims who have come forward to tell their story were abused in institutions auspiced by the Catholic Church. When the royal commission was announced, Cardinal Pell said “we object to being described as the only cab on the rank”. We are not the only cab, but we are the main one when it comes to reports of child sexual abuse within Australian institutions.’

In my blog of April 3 last year, I spoke about the particular problems of the Catholic Church. The blog was headed ‘Why the Catholic Church has such a problem with sexual abuse’. The blog is reposted below.  John Menadue


I am hopeful that Pope Francis will turn the barque of Peter around but it will be hard going after the disappointments and drift of the last two Popes. What a delight it would be if Pope Francis could pick up the unfinished work of Pope John 23 and the Second Vatican Council

The role of women in the Church and the scourge of sexual abuse will be central issues for Pope Francis and the whole Church, particularly as the Royal Commission on Sexual Abuse commences its work in Melbourne today.

In my blog of 28 February, I set out the facts that indicate that sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and religious is much higher than in the community generally and also higher than in other Christian churches. I referred to the paper by Professor Parkinson

Why is the problem so great in the Catholic Church?

One important reason is that the Catholic Church is patriarchal and male-dominated. Very little sexual abuse is committed by women. It is largely a male malady. In recent weeks we have seen the powerful male Catholic Church on display in Rome with exclusive male casts of Cardinals in all sorts of fancy dress. It is quite removed from St Paul’s ringing proclamation ‘that there is no longer Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Jesus Christ’. Sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is overwhelmingly about male abuse.

In Australian society women are often treated as second class citizens. It is much worse  in the Catholic Church .Invariably it is the Sisters in the Church who speak forthrightly and with courage  Together with lay women  they “keep the show on the road” The Bishops so often give us Vatican spin and evasion. Out of touch they just don’t get the gravity of the problem. Unless women are given a central role in the future of the Church I will remain concerned.

Another reason given for the higher incidence of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is the nature of seminary training. This problem is being addressed, but it has been historically damaging due to the early stage of selection for the priesthood and segregation from influences that promote balanced development.

Another reason, as Parkinson has pointed out, is that the opportunities for abuse are much greater because priests, ministers and youth leaders have a much greater opportunity to abuse boys rather than girls, given the patterns of their ministry. In the past at least, it has been more common for priests and religious to be alone with adolescent boys and have unsupervised relations with them, than with girls.

The mystique of the priesthood is probably another important reason. The assumption that the priest knows best leads to circumstances that in other situations would result in the potential victim telling the perpetrator to buzz off.

There is a lot of speculation about the effect of obligatory celibacy. Perhaps Parkinson has over-stated it. But I think that the absence of an adult partner makes the emotional life of priests more difficult. Almost all of us need a close partner to help face the difficulties and mistakes we all make. We need partners who can smooth the rough edges and tell us when to speak up or shut up. Many priests do have a naïve and idealized view of women.

But behind these particular problems is the attitude of the Catholic Church on sex going back to St. Augustine.(Calvinists followed suit) From that time we learnt fear of the body and the idea that somehow sexual relations are the carrier of original sin, and a distraction from God. As Bishop Geoffrey Robinson put it in 2010 in an ABC interview, ‘It is teaching on human sexual morality, more than anything else, that has kept the idea of an angry God alive and strong within the Catholic Church … (that teaching) has been a most significant contribution to the unhealthy culture in the Church … it can lead to the unhealthy attitude of sexuality being seen as dark, secretive and troublesome.’

The Catholic Church must face up to some fundamental issues. It will be very difficult. The big risk will be to assume that with a new Pope the problems will be solved . He will be important but all Catholics must accept collective responsibility.

As Bishop Geoffrey Robinson has put it we must follow the truth wherever it takes us and be courageous and confident enough to manage the consequences.

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