Report examined findings of 26 royal commissions and inquiries from Australia, Ireland, the UK, Canada, and Netherlands
by Melissa Davey September 13, 2017
Mandatory celibacy and a culture of secrecy created by popes and bishops are major factors in why such high rates of child abuse have occurred in the Catholic church, a comprehensive study has found.
The report, which looked at the findings of 26 royal commissions and other inquiries from Australia, Ireland, the UK, Canada and the Netherlands since 1985, found that while the endangerment of children in institutions has been considerably lowered in Australia, children remained at risk in Catholic parishes and schools and Catholic residential institutions in other countries across the world, especially in the developing world where there are more than 9,000 Catholic-run orphanages, including 2,600 in India.
The patriarchal nature of Catholic institutions meant that abuse went unchallenged and, while a small number of nuns were abusers, the report found the risk of offending was much higher in institutions where priests and religious brothers had minimal contact with women. The report estimated about 7% of clergy had abused children between about 1950 and 2000.
“Their contact with women in teacher training institutions would have been carefully proscribed and then they were appointed to male-only schools where they were in charge of young boys and adolescents,” the report said.
“And they were living in all-male religious communities. They had to make do with a sacralised image of a sexless Virgin Mary. It was a recipe for a psycho-spiritual disaster.”
A Catholic priest who assisted the child sexual abuse royal commission, Prof Des Cahill, says discovering he had lived and worked with pedophile priests was part of the reason he has devoted the past five years to analysing why child abuse has plagued the church.
On Wednesday the findings from Cahill and his theologian co-author, Dr Peter Wilkinson, were released in a report, Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: An Interpretive Review of the Literature and Public Inquiry Reports, published by the Centre for Global Research at RMIT University.
The findings explore why the Catholic church and its priests and religious brothers, more than any other religious denomination, have become synonymous with the historical sexual abuse of children.
Cahill served for many years on the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Council for Pastoral Research and has been co-convenor of For the Innocents, a support and advocacy group for victim survivors. He resigned from the ministry in the early 1970s.
“After the issue of abuse first became public, around 1978, I began wondering: ‘Why did this happen?’,” Cahill told Guardian Australia. “I knew some of the priest perpetrators and I studied with them and I lived with one of them. And yet I was never aware while I was in the church. You have to understand, a priest offender is very secretive and doesn’t want to be found out.”
His and Wilkinson’s findings were made after examining reports from royal commissions, academic studies, police reports and church reports from around the world since 1985. Among the findings was that mandatory celibacy was and remains “the major precipitating risk factor for child sexual abuse” and that popes and bishops created a culture of secrecy, leading to a series of gross failures in transparency, accountability, openness and trust.
The issue of confession was also examined. Last month, Australia’s child sex abuse royal commission called for clergy who refused to report child sexual abuse to police because the information was received during a religious confession to face criminal charges.
The recommendation prompted an angry response from the archbishop of the archdiocese of Melbourne, Denis Hart, who said he would risk going to jail rather than report allegations of child sexual abuse raised during confession, and that the sacredness of communication with God during confession should be above the law.
Cahill, who remains a committed Catholic though he now works in academia after resigning from the ministry to marry, said his report states that Pope Pius X’s 1910 decision to lower the age at which children make their first confession to seven years indirectly contributed to putting more children at risk; and that the church has on several occasions in its history allowed the seal of confession to be broken.
Cahill believes that if a child told a priest in confession that they had been abused the priest had an obligation to report it and that doing so would not be breaking the sanctity of confession because the child had not sinned, and so reporting to police would not also be revealing any sin of the child.
But if a perpetrator confessed to abusing a child during confession, Cahill said it would be more practical for a priest to tell the perpetrator that they would not receive forgiveness until they allowed the priest to tell police, or confessed to police themselves.
But was it fair to children to give their perpetrators an ultimatum rather than immediately reporting them to police?
“You have to remember that people like Hart have said they would rather go to jail than automatically go to police,” Cahill said.
But Dr Judy Courtin, an institutional sex abuse researcher who represents victims of abuse at Angela Sdrinis Legal, took issue with the inclusion in Cahill’s report of findings from studies that had been debunked.
The report states that “young and vulnerable Catholic children, especially boys, were in danger and at risk in the presence of psychosexually immature, psychosexually maldeveloped and sexually deprived and deeply frustrated male priests and male religious, particularly those who had not satisfactorily resolved their own sexual identity”.
“This was especially so if these priests and religious were confused or in denial about their homosexual orientation while training and operating in a profoundly homophobic Church environment,” the report found.
Courtin said that the evidence was “absolutely clear” that sexual crimes involving children and paedophilia “have nothing to do with homosexuality at all”.
“And homosexuality is one of the reasons or excuses that the church has used for a long time and it’s wrong, inappropriate and inaccurate of them,” she said. “Paedophilia does not equate with homosexuality.”
Courtin was also concerned by some of the finding reported that seemed to imply the parents of paedophiles were partly to blame, with the report saying the mothers of paedophiles were sometimes “smothering, perhaps covering up her own unhappiness vicariously through her son whose priesthood would raise the social status of herself and her family”.
On Wednesday, reports emerged that the Australian government’s draft child abuse redress scheme recommends abuse survivors receive compensation at half the amount of that recommended by the royal commission.
The Australian reported that draft legislation outlines compensation payments of between $5,000 and $150,000 for survivors. The royal commission provided a preliminary figure of $4bn for redress and said the commonwealth should be responsible for about 10% of redress claims, with the rest to be contributed by the state and territory governments and institutions.