Last month, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse completed its public hearings, which began in 2013. Over four years, the Commission held 57 public hearings, 15 of which related to the Catholic Church.
The final hearings were designated ‘wrap up’ hearings, looking not at particular cases but at various institutions. Most of them only lasted a day, with four days dedicated to the Anglican Church and fifteen to the Catholic Church.
The rationale for spending so much time on the Catholic Church were the horrendous statistics, which were outlined on the first day of the wrap up hearing. To recap, the Commission heard that 4,445 people have made allegations of child sexual abuse against 592 religious brothers, 572 Priests, 543 lay people and 96 religious sisters. The vast majority of these claims, it was said, related to conduct occurring before 1990.
And again, given that the statistics were so high, there was a focus on those things which were unique – or at least much more common – within the Catholic Church. So we heard about celibacy, confession, the male-only Priesthood, seminary formation, ontological change, and even the use of Latin in liturgies, all with a view to understanding what it might be about the Catholic Church which generated such high numbers.
All of that would be understandable except for one thing; a comparative look at the numbers coming out of some of the other wrap up hearings show that there were a number of other institutions without these practices which had much higher abuse rates than the Catholic Church.
Take, for example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose wrap up included just two witnesses and lasted for half a day. During that brief hearing, it was revealed that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had given the Commission case files relating to 1,006 alleged perpetrators of abuse within its Church; the majority of which had not been reported to the Police. While the number of alleged perpetrators was still significantly lower than the Catholic Church (1,006 versus 1,880), there are 50 times more Catholics in Australia than there are Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The Uniting Church wrap up also took just a few hours and heard from just three witnesses. During that hearing, the Commission heard that the Uniting Church has had 2,504 claims of child sexual abuse against its members. Again, the numbers are lower than the Catholic Church’s 4,445, but the Uniting Church only began in 1977. It did not exist during the 1950s, 1960s and most of the 1970s, when the majority of abuse was occurring in other denominations, including the Catholic Church. And at only 5 per cent of the population, the Uniting Church is 5 times smaller than the Catholic Church.
Even though on a per capita basis, the Uniting Church has received many more claims of abuse than the Catholic Church, it does not share most of the practices which received the attention of the Commission and the media. The Uniting Church does not have mandatory celibacy, confession, canon law, a hierarchical structure with centralised authority in a singular figure, a male-only Priesthood or residential seminary training, or any of the other items which attracted so much focus.
Every time I write about the Royal Commission in a way which appears that I am defending the Catholic Church or pointing the finger at another group, I get letters from very good people who are very upset with me for trying to deflect attention from our own sins, and for adopting an attitude of image protection which appears to be the exact same one which got us into this mess in the first place.
I understand the criticism, so I want to make my reasoning very clear. This isn’t about pointing fingers at other institutions. No matter what the numbers, it is worse that this scandal happened in the Catholic Church. If Catholics were really living our faith properly, not only would the numbers in our own Church have been lower, but we would have had such a positive influence on the non-Catholics around us that the numbers in other groups would be lower as well.
The Church deserves to be punished more than everyone else because we behaved like everyone else.
But if our goal, and the goal of the Royal Commission, is to ensure that children are protected in the future, then we need to respond on the evidence before the Commission, which might include us comparing the numbers from other institutions and suggesting that maybe we are focusing our attention on the wrong things. If the rates of offending are high amongst faith groups which do not share some of the cultural Catholic practices, then maybe we need to consider other risk factors instead of somehow equating clerical dress with warning signs. To do otherwise would risk us focussing attention, resources and ultimately legislation on red herrings rather than red flags. And no one would be better off.
Monica Doumit, catholicTalk editor