Catholic church dismisses key recommendations from landmark inquiry into child abuse
By Melissa Davey
December 15, 2017
|Members of the Care Leavers Australasia Network in Canberra as the final report of the Australian royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse was delivered to Sir Peter Cosgrove, the governor general.|
Photo by Lukas Coch
|Denis Hart, archbishop of Melbourne, speaking to the media after the publication of the royal commission report.|
Photo by David Crosling
Leaders of the Catholic church in Australia have quickly dismissed calls from a landmark inquiry into child sexual abuse that the Vatican should make celibacy for priests voluntary and end the secrecy of confession.
After five years of work, Australia’s royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse delivered its 21-volume report to government containing 400 recommendations – 189 of them new – to governments and organisations about how to prevent children being harmed on such a scale again.
It found the inadequacy of canon law contributed to the failure of the Catholic church to protect children and report or punish perpetrators within church institutions.
The commission urged the Australian Catholic bishops conference to ask the Vatican to reform canon law by removing provisions that “prevent, hinder or discourage compliance with mandatory reporting laws by bishops or religious superiors”.
“We recommend that canon law be amended so that the ‘pontifical secret’ does not apply to any aspect of allegations or canonical disciplinary processes relating to child sexual abuse,” the report said.
It also said the conference should urge the Vatican to rethink its celibacy rules. The commission found that while celibacy for clergy was not a direct cause of abuse, it elevated the risk when compulsorily celibate male clergy or religious figures had privileged access to children.
But the archbishop of the archdiocese of Melbourne, Denis Hart, responded by saying the seal of the confessional was “inviolable” and “can’t be broken”. He said if someone confessed to abusing children, he would encourage them to admit to their crimes outside the confessional so that it could be reported to police.
“I would feel terribly conflicted, and I would try even harder to get that person outside confessional, but I cannot break the seal,” he said. “The penalty for any priest breaking the seal is excommunication.”
Hart said the commission “hasn’t damaged the credibility of the church”.
In August, Hart upset many abuse survivors and advocates when he said he would risk going to jail rather than report allegations of child sexual abuse raised during confession. He was responding to a recommendation the commission published earlier this year that called for failure to report child sex abuse in institutions to be made a criminal offence.
Hart reiterated those views on Friday and said that he did not expect canon law to change. He said there was “real value” in celibacy, and did not want laws to be changed.
“I think it’s taken time for bishops to realise the seriousness of the matter” of child sexual abuse, he said.
The Catholic archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, said the report would take him time to digest. “It will not sit on any shelf,” he said. “I will study the findings and recommendations carefully, and then provide a detailed response as we discern, with the rest of the community, the best way forward.
However, like Hart, he dismissed calls to change confession. Changing mandatory reporting of abuse that comes to light through confession was “a distraction,” he said.
“While we are yet to study what the commission has had to say about that, I think everyone understands that this Catholic and orthodox practice of confession is always confidential,” he said. “Any proposal to stop the practice of confession in Australia would be a real hurt to all Catholics and Orthodox Christians.”
On celibacy rules, he said: “We know very well that institutions who have celibate clergy and institutions that don’t have celibate clergy both face these problems. We know very well that this happens in families that are certainly not observing celibacy.”
The commission is the largest inquiry of its kind conducted since the first reports of what became a global child abuse scandal emerged in the US.
The report found an overwhelming amount of the abuse reported to the commission occurred in faith-based institutions. Almost 2,500 survivors told the commission about sexual abuse in an institution managed by the Catholic church, representing 61.8% of all survivors who reported sexual abuse in a religious institution.
“In many religious institutions, the power afforded to people in religious ministry and the misplaced trust of parents combined with aspects of the institutional culture, practices and attitudes to create risks for children,” the report said.
“Alleged perpetrators often continued to have access to children even when religious leaders knew they posed a danger.
“We heard that alleged perpetrators were often transferred to other locations but they were rarely reported to police. The failure to understand that the sexual abuse of a child was a crime with profound impacts for the victim, and not a mere moral failure capable of correction by contrition and penance (a view expressed in the past by a number of religious leaders) is almost incomprehensible.”
The report said the Australian Catholic bishops conference should conduct a national review of the governance and management structures of dioceses and parishes, including in relation to issues of transparency, accountability, consultation and the participation of lay men and women.
The commission also called for the selection criteria for employing bishops to be published, including their credentials relating to the promotion of child safety. The commission called on churches to “establish a transparent process for appointing bishops which includes the direct participation of lay people”.
It found that Catholic schools in the archdiocese of Melbourne had a “dysfunctional” employment structure, where the parish priest is the employer of the school principal and school staff for parish schools.
“There is a risk that having the priest as employer could act as a barrier to people reporting concerns about child sexual abuse,” the report found. “We recommend that parish priests should not be the employers of principals and teachers in Catholic schools.”
The commissioners found numerous cases where alleged perpetrators were priests associated with Catholic schools.
“We concluded that the relevant bishop or archbishop knew about allegations of child sexual abuse but failed to take appropriate action to protect children from the risk of abuse, sometimes for years. Their inaction left these priests in positions where they had ongoing access to children in Catholic schools. It was left to principals and teachers to attempt to manage the risk these individuals posed to children.”
Among the other recommendations were that federal, state and territory governments should fund dedicated community support services for victims and survivors in each jurisdiction; that the federal government should conduct and publish a national study to establish the extent of child maltreatment in institutional and non-institutional settings; that each state and territory make the failure to report suspicions of abuse a crime, and also remove any remaining limitation periods, or any remaining immunities, that apply to child sexual abuse offences, including historical child sexual abuse offences.
The commission, led by Justice Peter McClellan, heard stories of abuse that occurred in more than 4,000 institutions ranging from religious organisations and sporting clubs to schools and orphanages. More than 15,000 people contacted the commission with evidence.
More than 8,000 people spoke to a commissioner during a private sessions, while hundreds more told their stories through public hearings that lasted 444 days. The commission referred many allegations of abuse to police, which to date has resulted in 230 prosecutions.
Two versions of the report were delivered to the government on Friday, one of which has been redacted for publication until a number of criminal proceedings have been completed.
Inquiries into the sexual abuse of children have been conducted worldwide, with Ireland’s Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse finding abuse in church-run institutions including schools was endemic. But that commission has been criticised for its limited scope, and did not examine the external impact of the abuse or name perpetrators to the extent that Australia’s royal commission already has. A British inquiry into child sexual abuse, still under way, has been marred by controversy. Its head, Dame Lowell Goddard, was forced to step down in 2016 after it was revealed she had spent extensive time on holiday.
Australia’s commission has been consistently praised by survivors, their advocates and experts for its uncompromising investigation of institutional abuse. It conducted 57 case studies, resulting in 45 reports to government, culminating in Friday’s final report. It has employed almost 700 staff since its inception in 2013, who examined more than 1.2m documents. McClellan chaired the commission throughout. The royal commission reviewed more than 300 reports published in the past 28 years, using many of these to inform its work.
The royal commission was first announced on 12 November 2012 by the then prime minister, Julia Gillard, who said allegations that had come to light about child sexual abuse were heartbreaking.
“These are insidious, evil acts to which no child should be subject,” she said at the time. “The individuals concerned deserve the most thorough of investigations into the wrongs that have been committed against them. They deserve to have their voices heard and their claims investigated.”
On Friday she thanked the six commissioners for their work.
“Our nation is indebted to you and to the survivors who fought so hard for justice and a safer future for our children,” she said. The current prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, told reporters the commission’s work had uncovered a “national tragedy”.
“Above all, I want to thank and honour the courage of the survivors and their families who’ve told, often for the first time, the dreadful stories of abuse that they received from people who actually owed them love and protection,” he said.
Turnbull has come under pressure for already ignoring recommendations made by the royal commission around a national redress scheme for survivors. The federal government’s redress legislation has attracted criticism for excluding abuse survivors who have been convicted of serious crimes, and for capping redress at $150,000. The royal commission recommended a cap of $200,000. The legislation has been referred to a Senate inquiry by the shadow social services minister, Jenny Macklin. State and territory governments have also been slow to commit to the legislation.
The commission found: “We heard from some survivors about their negative experiences with diocese-based redress schemes, including delays, inconvenient processes, and perceptions that the maximum payments available through these schemes were inadequate.”
Experts have already expressed concerns that the commission’s recommendations will only be as effective as the state, territory and federal governments and institutions tasked with implementing them.
The commissioners’ report found 64.3% of survivors were men. More than half were aged between 10 and 14 years when they were first sexually abused, though female survivors generally reported being younger. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprised 14.3% of survivors, and 93.8% of survivors told the commission they were abused by a male. The commission found 83.8% of survivors were abused by an adult, and the average duration of child sexual abuse experienced in institutions was 2.2 years. Of survivors, 36.3% said they were abused by multiple perpetrators.
“A national memorial should be commissioned by the Australian government for victims and survivors of child sexual abuse in institutional contexts,” the report recommended. “Victims and survivors should be consulted on the memorial design and it should be located in Canberra.”