The Church in Australia faces moment of truth

The Church in Australia faces moment of truth

Peter Westmore

The year 2013 commences with the establishment of the Australian Government's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse - an inquiry triggered by police allegations in New South Wales and Victoria that there had been a cover-up of claims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, despite the Catholic Church's internal processes set up to address the crisis. More restricted inquiries are under way in several states.

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has rightly decided that an investigation into these issues should extend beyond the Catholic Church - and indeed beyond any church - to look at the problem of child sexual abuse in all institutions, government and non-government.

The government wants to try to put in place measures which will protect children, provide support for victims, and at the same time, bring justice where crimes have been committed or covered up. The Church has promised to co-operate fully.

Global problem

Although its terms of reference had not been released when this was written, it is to be hoped that the Royal Commission will look at both the prevalence of child sexual abuse and its causes.

It is well recognised that child sexual abuse is a global problem, not just one affecting Australia. It arises from the vulnerability of children in contact with adults, as well as the effects of a permissive culture, the extent and availability of pornography, and the incidence of sexual disorders among adults, particularly men.

This grave social problem blights the lives of its victims, transmits the disorder from one generation to the next, and extends even into families although this is not the subject of inquiry by the Royal Commission.

For the Catholic Church, however, there are particular issues which affect the Church's credibility. Some of these arise from the fact that as the Church established by Jesus Christ himself, it upholds the highest moral principles, and insists that priests and religious be above reproach. When members of the Church, and particularly priests and religious, fail to live up to those standards, the Church as a whole is damaged.

If members of the hierarchy have knowingly hidden the extent of the problem to protect the reputation of the Church, that damage is compounded.

Church leaders across the country have reflected on the sense of betrayal felt by victims and by many of the faithful. In his recent Christmas reflection, Cardinal Pell said, "My heart, the hearts of all believers, of all people of good will go out to all those who cannot find peace at this time, especially those who have suffered at the hands of fellow Christians; Christian officials, priests, religious, teachers.

"I am deeply sorry this has happened. It is completely contrary to Christ's teachings and I feel too the shock and shame across the community at these revelations of wrongdoing and crimes."

In a pastoral letter in July 2010, Archbishop Denis Hart from Melbourne had written: "We are all painfully aware that our Church is now going through a terrible time of suffering and self-examination. The full extent of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and religious continues to emerge, not only here in Australia but throughout the world.

"Once again, therefore, I express my deep sorrow and offer a sincere and unreserved apology to all those victims who have suffered the pain and humiliation of sexual abuse and to their families.

"The scourge of sexual abuse continues to cause great distress and in many cases a crisis of faith amongst Catholics. Every week seems to bring fresh scandals, as victims of abuse speak publicly of what they and their families have suffered.

"As your Archbishop, I want you to know that I share in your desolation and sense of betrayal. The criminal offences and breaches of vows committed by some priests and religious bring shame upon the entire Church. How can we Catholics not be shocked and shamed?

"With great humility we acknowledge that the crimes of the perpetrators have done great harm. We recognise that in the past we have not always dealt appropriately with offenders. We have had to learn from our mistakes, and continue to do so.

"For me personally, this is one of the saddest times of my 43 years in the Catholic priesthood."


The scandal of clerical sexual abuse affects Catholics and Protestants very differently. Catholics are shocked and dismayed by the extent of the problem. Yet the fact that the Church was conducting thousands of schools and orphanages across the country - far more than all other churches put together - at a time when the problem was not recognised anywhere in society, might account for its extent.

Moreover, the Church's strong stance against sexual misconduct may have obscured the problem, helping to explain why so many Catholics were in denial for so long.

Many Protestants believe that sexual abuse is the inevitable consequence of clerical celibacy, apparently believing that celibacy is impossible, despite the clear evidence to the contrary in our own society.

It is probably too much to expect that these misconceptions will be dealt with by the Royal Commission, just as it is naive to believe that the sexual abuse of children, like other crimes, will be entirely eliminated.

However, it will help the victims, the Church and society if the Royal Commission can put in place measures which ensure that the incidence of sexual abuse of children is substantially reduced, and that there is effective support for the victims.

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