Child sex abuse inquiry found tens of thousands of victims across many Australian institutions; the Catholic Church the worst offender
A five-year inquiry into child sexual abuse in Australia’s institutions found the greatest number of alleged perpetrators and abused children were in Catholic institutions. PHOTO:EVANDRO INETTI/ZUMA PRESS
Robb M. StewartDec. 15, 2017 4:53 a.m. ET
SYDNEY—An Australian investigation into decades of child sexual abuse, involving tens of thousands of victims, called for sweeping changes in the Catholic Church and other organizations, including making celibacy voluntary for clergy and forcing ministers to report abuse concerns that come to light through confession.
The broad-ranging probe urged Australia’s Catholic Church to request the Vatican make changes to canon law, including removing limits on the time in which the church can take action on child sexual abuse cases, as well as removing a requirement to destroy documents relating to criminal cases in matters of morals.
The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse produced a 17-volume final report. PHOTO:JEREMY PIPER/ASSOCIATED PRESS
It recommended the government make it a criminal offense to fail to report knowledge or suspicions of abuse disclosed in a religious confession.
The report said confession had “contributed to both the occurrence of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and to inadequate institutional responses to abuse.”
“Church leaders have viewed child sexual abuse as a sin to be dealt with through private absolution and penance rather than as a crime to be reported to police. The sacrament of reconciliation enabled perpetrators to resolve their sense of guilt without fear of being reported,” it said.
In response, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher warned against making changes to confession. He said focusing “on something like confession is a distraction.”
“Any proposal to effectively stop the practice of confession in Australia would be a real hurt to all Catholics and Orthodox Christians, and I don’t think would help any young person,” Archbishop Fisher told reporters.
Abuse Survivor Leaves Pope’s Panel on Protecting Minors (March 1, 2017)
Australian Catholic Church’s Response to Child Sex Abuse Was ‘Massive Failure,’ Inquiry Is Told (Feb. 6, 2017)
Pope Establishes Court to Try Bishops for Sex-Case Missteps (June 10, 2015)
U.N. Torture Panel Questions Vatican on Handling of Sex-Abuse Scandal(May 5, 2014)
But the Catholic Bishops Conference, a group of Australian bishops, said it would work with another organization of Catholic leaders to review the report and respond within months.
In the U.S., many states require members of the clergy, among other professionals, to report child abuse.
The recommendations, made by Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, were among dozens made in a 17-volume report released Friday. It was the conclusion to a five-year inquiry into how organizations in the country managed and responded to allegations and instances of child abuse.
“Tens of thousands of children have been sexually abused in many Australian institutions,” the report said. “It is a national tragedy, perpetrated over generations within many of our most trusted institutions.”
It said abuse occurred in almost every type of institution, including sports clubs, schools and religious organizations. It wasn’t a case of a “few rotten apples,” it said, with some institutions having had multiple abusers who sexually abused multiple children. The commission accused society’s major institutions of serious failings, exacerbated by a “manifestly inadequate response.”
Launched in late 2012, a six-person commission handled nearly 70,000 calls, letters and emails, and made more than 2,000 referrals to authorities, including the police.
In response to the commission’s preliminary reports, the government already agreed to develop a database to share decisions on background checks for people working with children around the country and introduced reforms to stop registered child sex offenders from traveling overseas without permission, among other actions.
Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher, speaking to the media Friday, said focusing “on something like confession is a distraction.”PHOTO: CARRETT/EPA/SHUTTERSTOCK
The commission’s recommendations were directed at a number of institutions. But it said that, based on its findings, the greatest number of alleged perpetrators and abused children were in Catholic institutions. It said the power afforded to people in religious ministry and the misplaced trust of parents, combined with institutional culture, had created risks for children. It said alleged perpetrators often continued to have access to children even when religious leaders knew they posed a danger.
“This is a shameful past, in which a prevailing culture of secrecy and self-protection led to unnecessary suffering for many victims and their families,” said Archbishop Denis Hart, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.
The government of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Friday it would provide 52.1 million Australian dollars (US$39.9 million) to support victims. It also said it would establish a task force to consider and coordinate Canberra’s response to the final report’s recommendations.
“What that commission has done has exposed a national tragedy,” Mr. Turnbull said.
—Rob Taylor in Canberra contributed to this article.
Write to Robb M. Stewart at email@example.com