The Sexual Abuse Crisis

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2013-7) found that the Australian Catholic Church had a particularly bad record with sexual abuse of children and failing to respond to it. It recorded 4445 claimants who alleged sexual abuse in a Catholic setting. Some 7% of Catholic priests were alleged offenders, with offending occurring at a constant rate from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Robert Fitzgerald, the only Catholic among the Royal Commissioners, summarises the Commission’s findings related to the Catholic Church, and the conclusions to be drawn, in Royal Commission into Institutional Reponses to Child Sexual Abuse: Lessons and learnings for the People of God, Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society 39 (2018), 171-190.

Details of sexual abuse of children by priests and brothers

The Broken Rites website, which was instrumental in exposing the sexual abuse crisis in the 1990s, contains extensive records of individual offenders. Further information can be found in the Wikipedia article ‘Catholic Church sexual abuse cases in Australia‘.

Only a small number of abuse cases before 1950 are recorded. They include some known to Archbishop Polding around 1850 and to Mary MacKillop’s nuns in 1870, and the systematic abuse in the 1930s and 1940s at the Christian Brothers’ WA agricultural schools for migrant boys, Bindoon and Tardun. In 1920, Christian Brother Frederick Philip Carmody was sentenced to nine years gaol for abuse of boys at Clontarf Orphanage, WA.

Few abusers have given accounts of what they did, but the evidence to the Royal Commission of Gerald Ridsdale, possibly the worst pedophile priest in Australia, is described in James Franklin’s Gerald Ridsdale, pedophile priest, in his own words, Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society 36 (2015), 219-230. John Farrell, “Father F” gave an account of his life with oblique references to his abusing. The first two episodes of the 2020 ABC TV series Revelation presented detailed interviews with two abusers.

Effects of abuse

The Royal Commission received thousands of harrowing stories of lives blighted by the trauma of abuse and stories of suicides. Many are displayed in their collection of de-identified narratives (take the sub-classification Religious and Non-Government).

Chrissie Foster’s Hell on the Way to Heaven recounts the tragedy of her two daughters whose lives were destroyed by a pedophile priest.

Causes of abuse

While many causes of the high number of abusive priests and religious have been suggested – including poor selection processes for seminarians at very young ages, poor seminary training, clericalism, mandatory celibacy – they remain speculative.

Memoirs of the isolated and clerical culture of seminaries that contributed to poor psychological development and thus likely played a role in causing abuse include Chris Geraghty’s Cassocks in the Wilderness and The Priest Factory and Kevin Peoples’ Trapped In a Closed World: Catholic Culture and Sexual Abuse.

The general culture of trust placed in the clergy (enhanced by the success of the cover-up until 1990) enabled continuing access to victims by abusers. That was particularly so with regard to residential care institutions for disabled and deprived boys which recorded very high rates of abuse, such as those run by the St John of God Brothers and Boys Town, Beaudesert.

Cover-up of abuse

Until the 1990s, cover-up of abuse was universal Church practice. Priests and brothers who offended were not reported to police or expelled but at most privately admonished and sometimes moved to a new location.

The Broken Rites website gives many detailed cases of cover-ups of abuse.

No Church authorities who engaged in the cover-up have explained their actions or inactions.

The role of psychiatrists, legal advisers and police in the cover-up remains poorly understood. In Unholy Trinity, policeman Denis Ryan details the failure of his efforts to bring to justice the Mildura pedophile priest Monsignor Day.

Causes of cover-up

While the cases of abuse were individual and in no way approved or excused by Catholic theory, the cover-up of abuse was systematic and a matter of institutional policy.

Kieran Tapsell’s Potiphar’s Wife examines the canon law prohibitions on reporting those allegations of abuse which were the subject of a canon law process. However the wider story of international church policy and administrative procedure concerning the vast majority of cases that were not subject to canon law processes remains unclear.

Australian analyses of the ways in which Church culture contributed to the abuse and cover-up include Bishop Geoffrey Robinson’s Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church (2007), Neil and Thea Ormerod’s When Ministers Sin: Sexual abuse in the churches (1994), Chris McGillion and Damian Grace’s Reckoning: The Catholic Church and child sexual abuse (2014) and Desmond Cahill and Peter Wilkinson’s Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church (2017) .

Other factors that played a role, to degrees hard to determine, include the general tendency of institutions to protect their reputations (seen in other inquiries by the Royal Commission); the unwillingness of victims to make their cases public; the poor understanding in earlier decades of the persistence of childhood trauma; and the general reticence at that time towards discussing and taking to court very personal matters.

Treatment of complainants

While some victims did not want their cases made public, those who did were often attacked by church authorities, by such means as sending expensive legal counsel to cross-examine them aggressively in court.

Containment of the abuse crisis

The abuse crisis became public in the early 1990s as the first cases came to court. Some churchmen acted to remove abusers from contact with children, although canon law rules and Vatican policy placed obstacles in the way. Some of the story can be found in the evidence of then-bishop Philip Wilson, then-auxiliary bishop George Pell, Fr Brian Lucas and Monsignor John Usher.

From 1988 the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference developed protocols for dealing with abuse allegations and compensation claims, culminating in the Towards Healing and Melbourne Response processes, announced in 1996. Both were later criticised as inadequate but did lay out in public a process that victims could follow.

Few abuse cases since the mid-1990s have been reported, as described in Virginia Miller’s 2021 book, Child Sexual Abuse Inquiries and the Catholic Church: Reassessing the Evidence (which also criticises the Royal Commission for not querying poorly-evidenced allegations). (JACHS review)

Pope Benedict XVI apologised for the abuse during his visit to Sydney in 2008.

Other forms of abuse

There has been little study of other forms of abuse by representatives of the Church, such as abusive sexual relations between priests and women (lay and religious), excessive corporal punishment in schools, misuse of authority, threats of eternal damnation, and deprivation in orphanages. Some work has been done on Magdalen laundries.

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