'Their cross to bear': The Catholic women told to forgive domestic violence
By Hayley Gleeson With Julia Baird
ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
November 04, 2017
Pope Francis has denounced domestic abuse as "craven acts of cowardice". But will the Australian Catholic Church have the courage to answer his call and root out the "shameful ill-treatment" of women in its midst? And is its all-male hierarchy, still reeling from revelations of child sexual abuse, capable of leading the charge?
Over the past three decades spent working for the Catholic Church, Maria George has been exposed to dozens of women who have survived intimate partner violence. The work of a pastoral associate often involves caring for vulnerable or distressed parishioners.
But the story of one particular woman's abuse by her husband, a controlling man who raped his wife repeatedly over the decades of their marriage, has stayed with her.
"She endured something like 16 pregnancies, quite a few miscarriages, and the stillbirth of a baby," Ms George, a senior pastoral associate at Melbourne's St Kilda-Elwood parish, told ABC News.
She knew that being forced to have sex was wrong, and she often thought about leaving, Ms George said.
But, "her response to that [abuse] was, 'this is my duty as a wife, for better or worse', and 'I said in marriage vows that I will stick with this'." And she did.
Another woman, a mother of seven living in Melbourne who spoke to Ms George about her alcoholic husband's physical, verbal and emotional abuse, sought the help of a priest.
He told her the violence was "God's will" and that she must endure it because she'd promised in her marriage vows that she would, for better or worse.
"The [priest's] attitude was that it was perhaps a moral failing by that man, but you have a duty to forgive," Ms George said.
"That is what the Christian faith teaches us, that you must be forgiving, and basically forgive and go back and get more of the same treatment. That is what happened in the end."
Though Ms George would advise such women to seek a different, more supportive priest's advice — and pastoral care — hearing these accounts still made her angry.
"I'd certainly talk to [the women] about what Jesus might have said ... That they had a right to have a full life, too," she said.
We asked if you thought the Australian Catholic Church could root out the "shameful ill-treatment" of women in its midst. Read the discussion in the comments.
Confronting the 'shameful ill-treatment' of women
Over the past year ABC News has been investigating the complex relationship between religion and domestic violence, and asking: Are religious attitudes or teachings ever used by abusers to justify intimate partner violence?
Do particular scriptures or religious cultures encourage or allow women in faith communities to remain in abusive relationships? What is the role of faith leaders — the priest, imam or rabbi?
And, given no group is immune from the existence of domestic abuse, and one in four Australian women experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime, with at least one woman killed by a current or former partner every week, how are faith communities in Australia responding to evidence of intimate partner violence in their midst?
In part one of this series, on Islam, we found confusion about whether the Koran allows Muslim men to physically discipline their wives, and that many Australian Imams are risking women's lives by counselling them to remain in abusive marriages.
In part two, we have been examining the Christian Church, which nominally includes 52 per cent of the Australian population.
Having conducted more than 200 interviews with domestic violence survivors, social workers, clergy, church staff and theologians, we found many women have been told to submit to — and forgive — abusive husbands and endure violent behaviour.
Counsellors and survivors report that biblical verses, particularly in many Protestant churches, are often misused to justify abuse.
In response, the Anglican Church of Australia formally apologised to domestic violence victims who it acknowledged had been let down by church leaders and teachings, while the Uniting Church Synod of Victoria and Tasmania pledged to redouble its efforts to address family violence — including by promoting gender equality — in church communities.
The Anglican Diocese of Sydney also voted unanimously to apologise for times it had failed victims of domestic abuse, as well as to adopt a comprehensive policy for responding well to violence among church members and leaders.
But what about the Catholic Church, the largest Christian denomination in Australia, to which almost a quarter of Australians say they belong?
Of course, for most Catholics, marriage is a positive and fulfilling union that brings couples intimacy, joy and a sense of wellbeing.
It should be, but even the Pope has called on his Church to eliminate the "shameful ill-treatment" of women. And these questions remain: Do certain Catholic conventions or cultures exacerbate domestic violence, or stymie the Church's response to it?
Do any diminish women, or protect them? Are women being heard?
'We need to say the same thing about domestic abuse as we have about sexual abuse'
Survivors, social workers and advocates for church reform have told ABC News the Church's strict teachings on divorce and remarriage, an emphasis on forgiveness at all costs and, less directly, the lack of women in its all-male hierarchy, are leading women to remain in, and blame themselves for, violent relationships.
Abused Catholics are often reluctant to leave because, among other complex reasons, doing so means breaking their marriage vows.
And in too many cases priests have told women that abuse is their "cross to bear". However, Canon law does not compel women to stay in abusive relationships.
As a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Melbourne told the ABC: "Clergy who counsel victims to remain in abusive marriages for the sake of their marriage do so in contravention of Church teaching. Canon 1151 declares that a lawful reason — the prevalence of domestic violence is one such reason — excuses the obligation to maintain a common life."
Many experts also believe the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse — which documented decades of allegations of abuse within the Catholic Church and pointed the finger at a culture of clericalism and failure to protect victims — should convince the Church it needs to take gender inequality and domestic violence more seriously.
It should grab hold of that opportunity, they say, if it wants to avoid repeating past mistakes.
Sharon O'Brien, the director of Catholics for Family Peace, a domestic violence education and research initiative at the Catholic University of America, says the Church's global sexual abuse scandal has until recently diverted its attention from the question of family violence. But, she says, "we should have been able to address both".
"When the issue first broke, people [in the Catholic Church] had known about clergy sex abuse for years. They didn't know what to do, who to talk to, or how to solve it," Dr O'Brien told ABC News.
"But now there is a solution, there is a model for how to respond to it.
"And we'll do the same thing with abuse and violence in Catholic marriages. We need to get to a point where we say the same thing about violence and abuse in Catholic marriages as we have about sexual abuse — that it's not okay."
Why isn't family violence a priority for the Catholic Church?
Until recently, tending to the problem of domestic violence had been considered the domain not of the Catholic Church's hierarchy but its numerous charities and social welfare agencies which run frontline services for the broader community, including crisis accommodation, counselling, perpetrator behaviour change programs and court support.
In the past couple of years, however, a handful of Catholic churches in Australia have begun to take action.
These efforts have been motivated largely by the findings of Victoria's Royal Commission into Family Violence in 2016, and Queensland's Special Taskforce on Domestic and Family Violence in 2015, both of which found the Church, along with other faith communities, was perpetuating domestic violence in its fold.
The royal commission's final report, tabled in March 2016, identified religious leaders — almost all of whom are men — as a particular "challenge". Many abused women who sought their help were told the abuse was their fault, or that they should stay in "intolerable" situations.
Barely a week after the commission's report was presented to state parliament, Pope Francis released Amoris Laetitia, an apostolic exhortation in which he reflected on, among other issues, the "challenge" of family violence and the "shameful ill-treatment" of women.
"The verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages," he said, "contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union".
The Pope acknowledged leaders in his Church were often ill-equipped, saying it was "clear that ordained ministers often lack the training needed to deal with the complex problems currently facing families" and that good pastoral training was important, "especially in light of particular emergency situations arising from cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse".
For many Catholic groups in the United States — where bishops and counsellors had been working since the early 1990s to address family violence in the Church — Pope Francis's explicit "naming and shaming" of domestic abuse was rocket fuel.
In the months after Amoris Laetitia was published, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops reissued statements condemning domestic violence and imploring their communities to do more to address it.
Catholic leaders from around the country flocked to Washington DC for a symposium, organised by Catholics for Family Peace, where they spent two days learning how they could better respond to domestic violence in their dioceses.
Christauria Welland, a San Diego-based clinical psychologist and founder of Pax in Familia, an organisation that works to prevent domestic abuse in Catholic families, says the Pope's comments re-energised those working at the coalface.
"We actually had a papal document that we could quote from, that specifically mentioned and denounced domestic violence in ways that earlier Popes had written [only indirectly] about ...or named only in passing," Dr Welland, who spoke at the symposium, told ABC News.
It was also "exhilarating" she said, "to learn how many of us there were out there who were working or wanting to work on this issue in the Church".
In Australia, however, there has been less momentum
Some Catholic groups have taken steps to confront the problem, albeit in a sporadic fashion and without national coordination.
In October 2016 the Bishops of Victoria issued a statement to "the whole Church community" in which they condemned domestic violence "in the strongest possible terms" and called on parishes and church groups in the state to "play a part in its elimination".
And earlier this year, the Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane relaunched its 2016 anti-domestic violence campaign, Rewrite the Story, to promote discussion.
(In 2014 the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference put out a media statement in support of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and in 2016 reflected generally on Amoris Laetitia, but they have not made an explicit statement denouncing domestic violence.)
But several archdioceses contacted by ABC News said they did not have in place formal protocols for responding to domestic violence, nor did they run any family violence training programs for clergy and pastoral staff.
Many pointed to frontline work being done by Catholic agencies as evidence of the church's efforts; others — including the Catholic Archdioceses of Sydney and Hobart and the Diocese of Darwin — did not respond to repeated requests for information.
Parishes and dioceses are busy places, Dr Welland says, and while in her experience they aren't opposed to addressing domestic abuse, some may not consider it a priority, while others simply falsely assume it doesn't affect Catholic families.
"Clergy can be just as ignorant as the next person about the real effects, dangers and outcomes of domestic violence, especially severe, life-threatening violence," Dr Welland said.
But, she added: "Any time domestic violence is ignored, or unhelpful or poor advice is given, it can have devastating consequences for [victims] and their family.
Some may feel that God has abandoned them ... some may lose faith. Suffering, trauma and even threats to life may continue if support is not offered.
Maria Harries, adjunct professor at the Curtin University School of Occupational Therapy and Social Work and chair of Catholic Social Services Australia, says it is "imperative" that the Catholic Church's hierarchy lead the way in speaking out.
"All people in leadership in the Church — clerical and lay — have a duty to publicly and privately condemn violence," Dr Harries said.
This is particularly important at the parish level, she said, because many Catholics may not read domestic violence statements by bishops or archdioceses.
However, Dr Harries added, "very few priests are trained as social workers or psychologists and conversations about family violence will likely raise significant issues amongst congregations".
Indeed, despite well-meaning attempts within some dioceses at discussion, and a slight softening in the Church's attitude towards divorce and remarriage in recent decades, counsellors and church staff still report that many couples are remaining in abusive marriages because they believe their church requires them to, or because they are adhering strictly to core teachings about forgiveness.
What is needed now, advocates say, is stronger leadership from the Church hierarchy, as well as comprehensive training for clergy and parish staff.
According to Dr O'Brien, one of the biggest challenges has been correcting misunderstandings of the rules around marriage and divorce.
"The major thing we teach clergy is that domestic violence is not a 'marital spat' — it is not just a disagreement between two equals," Dr O'Brien said.
"It is one person using his or her power to squash the other person — emotionally, physically, sexually."
'For better or worse': What does the Catholic faith teach about marriage and divorce?
Francis Moloney, a senior professorial fellow at Catholic Theological College in Melbourne, says there is an "urgent need" for the Church to rethink its teaching on divorce and remarriage.
Doing so, he says, could help to address the issue of domestic violence in Catholic marriages.
(The Catholic Church does not recognise the re-marriage of a divorced person unless an annulment is granted determining that a valid, sacramental marriage never occurred in the first place.)
The Church's teaching on the indissolubility of marriage can exacerbate already abusive marriages, said Professor Moloney, a priest of the Salesians of Don Bosco, because it can lead couples to believe there is "no exit".
"Once they wrongly have it in their minds and hearts that there is no escape, deeper depression and violence sets in," he said.
The tendency of clergy to protect the sanctity of marriage by advising women to remain in abusive relationships has historically been an issue, says Denis Fitzgerald, the executive director of Catholic Social Services Victoria.
"Just sitting around the table a year or so ago, a group of us were reflecting on euphemistic expressions we had heard over the years — [for example] 'If somebody's in a difficult marriage, they've made their bed and now they have to lie in it'," Mr Fitzgerald told ABC News.
But even today, says Ms George, "there's certainly a sense of absolute shame if a woman divorces, and it's usually the woman who leaves an abusive husband".
"I hear it occasionally still, that people who are divorced have been told, for example, that they can't serve on a [church] committee or can't be a Eucharistic minister ... they're ostracised," she said.
'I was told this was my cross to bear, to get on with my marriage'
This was the case for Bridget, whose Catholic Church community in outer-suburban Sydney turned against her for leaving her abusive husband after he convinced her church friends, co-workers and even the bishop she had been having an affair (which she had not).
"I lost my family, my parish, my friends and colleagues because I dared to say 'enough'," Bridget, a teacher, told ABC News. "When I left, I became an outcast."
Bridget's husband, who never missed Sunday Mass and went to confession regularly, was abusive towards her from the very first night of their marriage, when he raped her. His unpredictable moods dictated his behaviour, and if he had been drinking, she said, life was much worse.
"He tried to control everything: whether I could go out, who I was friends with, how much money I could spend, and how my salary could be used ... Nothing I did was ever right," she said.
"The house wasn't clean enough, the children weren't tidy or neat enough, I was a 'stupid, lazy bitch' — even my children began to call me 'stupid bitch'."
His sexual abuse escalated over the years, culminating in the stillbirth of Bridget's last child, who she says died in utero as a result of his violent behaviour.
He'd frequently force himself on her, despite her attempts to use the Billings method for contraception, and was undeterred by her lack of consent.
"There was no such word as 'no' in my house," Bridget said. "After a particularly nasty sexual episode, he [commented]: 'That was so good!'"
The assistant priest at Bridget's church came to talk to her husband about what was happening, but he refused to talk about it. As a result, the priest told Bridget to seek counselling so that she might cope better with his abuse.
"There was never a suggestion that I could or should leave," she said.
I felt hopeless, full of pain and despair. I wasn't functioning properly at all — it was as if I was going through the motions but dead inside. I often thought of suicide, but the children kept me alive.
It took Bridget 18 months to scrape together enough money — and courage — to leave her husband, taking only some clothes and a few items of furniture. He refused to let her take the children.
But the parish priest, tipped off by her husband, came to visit her at her new home, and urged her to go back to him because he was "such a good man".
"I was told that this was my cross to bear, and to get on with my marriage," she said.
"What I wished for was support for me as a human being, not just as the wife of a 'good Catholic man'."
Pope 'determined' to overcome the Church's 'hardness of heart' towards troubled marriages
Many Catholics today insist victims of domestic abuse are supported to leave — that the stigma of divorce is less influential than it has been in the past and that the Church is set to change its ways.
Professor Moloney believes most Australian priests would sooner advise women to seek a divorce than remain in an abusive marriage, and says the Church's "very vigorous annulment process" — which has been streamlined by Pope Francis — has made it easier for Catholics in abusive marriages to separate.
Furthermore, fewer young people from traditional Catholic families are marrying in the Church, he says, and those who do often do so at their parents' encouragement.
"They subsequently pay very little attention to the Church's teaching on such matters as birth control [which, apart from natural fertility methods, is prohibited] and divorce. If there is trouble, they leave."
But Professor Moloney also argues the Church's teaching on divorce and remarriage is biblically unfounded — though he remains in the minority amongst theologians.
He says Pope Francis has sought his and other senior scholars' advice on the matter and will look to address it in the next five to 10 years — despite fierce opposition from clergy in the Church's stiff right wing, who have publicly opposed the Pope's "mercy-before-doctrine drive" and fuelled talk of a schism in the Church.
"Francis is determined to overcome the current hardness of heart in the Catholic Church towards troubled marriages," Professor Moloney said.
"His Amoris Laetitia" — in which he reflects on how the Church can better support divorced and remarried Catholics — "is only a start".
Is an all-male hierarchy capable of responding effectively to gendered violence?
But then the Pope, who is considered to be more progressive on certain issues than his predecessors, is also renowned for his refusal to reconsider the Church's ban on ordaining women as priests.
And a growing number of Catholic progressives are now questioning whether an all-male hierarchy can effectively address domestic violence.
(It is commonly argued that gendered violence is both a cause and consequence of structural inequalities between men and women.)
"The Church's teachings certainly treat women unequally in the key area of its governance and its pastoral ministries — without a convincing scriptural basis," Peter Johnstone, the president of Catholics for Renewal, told ABC News.
"I'm aware of statements from the Church expressing in words its condemnation of domestic violence. However, the implicit messages in the structures and teachings of the Church, which clearly assume male superiority, are otherwise."
Marilyn Hatton, the convenor of the Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, says there can be "no justice" in a Church that does not see women as men's equals.
Women are included in decision-making at an administrative level, she says, but not in mission or doctrinal level issues, which are presided over by the bishops.
"If the Catholic Church with all its influence granted full equality to women it would impact on the status of women across the world," Ms Hatton told ABC News.
"Importantly, it would start to reduce violence against women and children, an issue that impacts on their health and welfare daily."
But Lorraine Barker, secretary of the National Office for the Participation of Women at the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, rejects the notion that women are excluded from leadership in the Australian Catholic Church.
We should not look at the priesthood, she says, but senior lay positions.
"For example, there are 34 women in senior positions working for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and 41 men," Ms Barker said, even though all of the bishops are men.
"That number continues to increase as more women take up leadership positions across our Church agencies."
The role of women in transforming clerical culture
One of the many issues raised by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is how the lack of women in church leadership positions may have contributed to its culture of clericalism — whereby ordained clergy operate in a closed, self-protective manner with little or no accountability to the broader church community — and mishandling of reports of sexual abuse.
Neil Ormerod, a professor of theology at the Australian Catholic University, told the commission the Archdiocese of Adelaide had the lowest rate of reported child sexual abuse in Australia.
He attributed this to its history of including women in senior leadership roles, including episcopal vicars.
Placing women in diocese leadership roles created a different dynamic, Professor Ormerod said, "one which normalised the presence of women in positions of authority over their clerical counterparts".
This was "delegated authority from the bishop", he said, "but real nonetheless".
"While it is difficult, even impossible, to say this is the one factor that made a difference in relation to sexual abuse ... it is a significant difference between Adelaide and other Australian dioceses."
Women, Professor Ormerod said, "bring a different perspective, a different way of relating, a different set of values".
"Most importantly, they call into question the normativity of the male clerical perspective."
(Of course, while it may have lower rates of reported child sexual abuse, there is no evidence to suggest Adelaide has lower rates of domestic abuse than other archdioceses, in part because churches have not systematically recorded this data. Furthermore, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese told ABC News it does not run specific domestic abuse training for clergy and Church staff and does not have a formal protocol for responding to family violence.)
Geraldine Hawkes, ecumenical facilitator at the South Australian Council of Churches, was one of the first two women appointed to the Archdiocese of Adelaide's pastoral team in 1985.
"Rather than appoint a celibate male bishop to work alongside him [per the standard model] ... it was agreed the archdiocese would have a pastoral team [comprising] the archbishop, a priest, a religious sister and a laywoman," Ms Hawkes told ABC News.
"We were able to work within our various portfolios, and make decisions with agencies and parishes, but we always did so in consultation with one another ... there was a culture of collaboration and consultation and collegiality."
A shared leadership model also meant things were less likely to slip through the cracks, she said.
"It was a place where you couldn't hide; women were naturally curious, and they pick up things," she said.
"We also had [reporting] mechanisms for if we were feeling uneasy about something, which were respectful and allowed people's confidences to be honoured. So we had an open style of inquiry and exploration. It was great."
How is the Church responding?
The importance of addressing gender inequality is underscored in the handful of domestic violence strategies being implemented by the Catholic Church in 2017.
So, too, is the need to address perceptions that the Church expects victims to remain in abusive marriages rather than separate, or seek an annulment.
The Archdiocese of Melbourne's strategy, for example, was developed by Catholic Social Services Victoria, which in February distributed a domestic violence "resource kit" to help parishes in the state better understand and respond to family violence.
The kit includes a statement by Bishop Vincent Long, who criticises the Church's "inadequate response" to domestic violence and implores it to do more: to believe and support victims, stand up to perpetrators, and confront the gender inequality at its root.*
"We see the resource kit as a first step," Mr Fitzgerald said. "We'll be following it up with additional training sessions" — currently in development — "for clergy and pastoral leaders".
The Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, said the Church is "acutely conscious of the respect owed to every person".
"Good priests and workers in parishes are very alert to any signs of suffering in mind or body which can trigger violence, and our CatholicCare agencies are constantly working with families to ensure they have support when threatened," the Archbishop said in a statement to ABC News.
And the Archbishop of Brisbane, Mark Coleridge, said his archdiocese had "decided to do whatever it takes" to address "the social malaise of domestic violence".
Separation is "a very tough decision" that many women feel unable to make, Archbishop Coleridge said in a statement.
However, he said, "a pastoral response from the Church ... would be to say no woman should feel constrained to stay in what is a violent and abusive relationship".
"The Church has a duty to say 'you should leave', and do something to help a woman leave and then to provide the sort of help she will need practically to leave," he said.
Importantly, says Liz Mackinlay, chair of the board of Mary's House, a non-denominational domestic violence refuge in North Sydney, Catholic parishes don't have to wait for leadership from the top of the Church to take action.
Mary's House began as an initiative of the Jesuit Parish of Our Lady of the Way, which remains involved in its operations.
The Lower North Shore parish is also currently developing a pastoral program to support people experiencing domestic abuse — which will include training for church staff — and has been part of ongoing discussions with other churches about responding to family violence.
"We're emailing each other resources for use in our parishes, we're sharing ideas — it's a wonderful expression of our faith and of Christians in community in action," Ms Mackinlay told ABC News.
But Christauria Welland, who in 2015 authored a book for clergy and laity on ending violence in Catholic families, says it can take a long time for parishes and dioceses to realise they need to develop domestic violence strategies.
In the meantime, she says, it's crucial that priests and pastoral workers receive at least basic training for responding to abuse.
"We must be perseverant and patient," Dr Welland said.
Focus and visibility are what will make domestic violence more of an issue in the Church.
For Sharon O'Brien at Catholics for Family Peace, parish priests have perhaps the most critical role in the Catholic Church's response to family violence.
"As soon as a priest — and we hear this all the time — gives a homily or puts up [domestic violence] resource cards or makes any indication that he is willing to listen and refer [to external service providers], then people [experiencing abuse] come forward," Dr O'Brien said.
However, she says, it is important the priest's efforts are supported by a working group who understand the dynamics of, and can maintain parish resources on, domestic violence: "Having a committee that stays on top of it is what we have found to be helpful, otherwise [the momentum] dies."
'There's evidence the Church is pulling back, retreating'
Of course, like many large organisations wrestling with cultural change, the Catholic Church is slow to move; those working at the frontline of domestic violence services report its response has been uncoordinated and insufficient.
"There are pockets [within the Church] where people are doing great work — some good bishops and archbishops who are listening — but they are too few and far between," said Sister Michelle Reid, who for 10 years was the manager of Melbourne's Good Samaritan Inn, which provides crisis accommodation for women and children escaping domestic violence.
"Really, it's the nine-tenths of the iceberg underneath that is hardest to shift."
Sister Michelle points to work being done in Victorian schools, including Catholic schools, which from this year must deliver the state government's Respectful Relationships curriculum at the recommendation of the Royal Commission into Family Violence.
"It is getting young boys and girls talking about their relationships," she said. "They talk about how they want to be treated and what they perceive is a respectful relationship and what isn't."
But Michael Salter, a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Western Sydney, says it is difficult for the Catholic Church to promote respectful relationships and sexual ethics when clergy are unable to be open about their own relationships.
"It's estimated" — by one study of American Catholic priests and brothers — "that at least half of Catholic clergy are not celibate, and these relationships have to be kept secret since they are against Church teaching," Dr Salter told ABC News.
This, he said, can impede its response to child sexual abuse.
Furthermore, the institutional and cultural risk factors for child sexual abuse — for example, gender inequality, misogyny, a lack of accountability and a lack of transparent reporting mechanisms — are, he says, also "characteristic of how faith communities tend to cover up and perpetuate domestic violence".
"The issue that we have with faith communities such as the Catholic Church is that a poor response to child sexual abuse often goes hand-in-hand with an inadequate response to domestic violence, so the Church is failing to protect and support victims across their lifespan," Dr Salter said.
Which is why many see the royal commission — which revealed the devastating extent of abuse of children within the Catholic Church — as an opportunity to completely overhaul the Church's culture.
Some are urging that a much-needed conversation about gender and domestic violence will come next, while some are hopeful that the Church's plenary council, to be held in 2020, will allow it to grapple with such issues in a way it never has.
Professor Moloney says the royal commission has been a "huge turning point" for the Catholic Church that he hopes will spark a crucial conversation about relationships, divorce and domestic violence.
"The fragility of a top-heavy Church and the subsequent horror of clericalism is now blazingly obvious," Professor Moloney told ABC News.
I am hoping that the rank and file of the Church will hold its leadership to their admission: 'We have failed'.
But Maureen Cleary OAM, a governance and management consultant who has worked extensively with the Catholic Church, questions how willing the Church is to change.
"Is the hierarchy of the Church prepared to be accountable, are they going to be open and transparent about their own decision-making?" Dr Cleary told ABC News.
"There's only anecdotal evidence [of progress made] since the royal commission, but it's not all that exciting," she said.
"There's anecdotal evidence that [the Church] is pulling back, and retreating."
'There must be a God who does care'
It is important not to ignore the Catholic Church's many success stories, says Ms George, one being the growing leadership role pastoral associates are playing in parishes.
But she has also watched as thousands of men and women, young and old, have abandoned their faith entirely.
"I think the lack of women in visible leadership has definitely contributed to so many women leaving," Ms George said.
"Whenever I see images of the hierarchical church, with all those men dressed up in mitres and ecclesial garb, all sitting in a huge block together, or when I go to a Mass at the cathedral and see the same — men up the front, women in the pews — I, and many others, just feel demoralised, and think, why are we even bothering? Should we just walk away and let the whole show fall over?
"But I believe that I have to continue to fight for equality from within, and I am determined to go down fighting."
Bridget has also felt alienated by the Church at times.
She continues to work as a teacher in a Catholic Church-affiliated college, which she loves, and has great relationships with her colleagues.
But her happiness has been achieved despite immense pain: although she has undergone years of counselling and spiritual direction, Bridget is still "wary" of men. She also still suffers from a difficult medical condition, the result of being repeatedly raped.
"To this day, I have not been able to trust men again," she said. "Any relationship I've had since [I left my ex-husband] has ended, often for silly reasons, but basically because I am afraid to commit to anyone who could hurt me again."
Still, she says, her personal faith has kept her going.
I believe that God has been with me in all things, and that I am never alone," she said.
"I guess this is faith, but not the conventional faith of the Church — more a faith that has come out of pain and suffering. I know I could never have done this on my own, so there must be a God who does care."
Names have been changed to protect those in this piece who have survived domestic violence.