Child Abuse in Catholic Church of Australia

On October 6, they held the opening session of Australia's investigation of the Catholic Church’s involvement in child abuse . This was a Royal Commission, Australia’s highest level of investigation. The Commission released data that contradicts standard claims of the Catholic Church, and drew some dramatic conclusions. Yet it received relatively little coverage. The NY Times ran a brief report by the Associated Press (here), and buried it. The most cited claim, concerning the percentage of priests who abused children, was seriously underestimated.

What the Media Reported

NY Times/Associated Press

The key point of the Times/AP article was: “Seven percent of priests in Australia's Catholic Church were accused of sexually abusing children over the past several decades.” The Catholic Church has many different categories for its professional workers, with priests being the best known. There are also members of religious orders – monks, friars, brothers, etc. – not to mention nuns and others. The investigation covered all these workers, not just priests. This is not nit-picking. The study found that priests were actually less likely to be pederasts than were religious workers in schools. That is, the Church managed to place most of their pederasts where they could do the most harm.

The Times/AP also pointed out that this estimate of 7% child abusers is higher than some other estimates: “one [American] study found that 4 percent of priests who served between 1950 and 2002 had been accused of abuse.” They neglected to mention that this study was sponsored by American bishops. Had it been a medical study sponsored by big pharma, I think they would have mentioned it. Similarly, the Times/AP ignored criticisms of the study. While the article implies that the estimate of 7% was too high, we will see that other facts reported by the Commission, and ignored by the Times/AP, indicate that this figure is actually too low.

Thomas Doyle, who has studied this problem for several decades (and was an expert witness in Australia), has estimated that about 6% of clerics are abusers – close to Australia’s 7% estimate. The movie Spotlight repeatedly cited Doyle’s estimate. But as I previously noted (here), the postscript of Spotlight showed the true figure was nearly three times higher.

The Times/AP article also pointed out that the average age of the victims was about 11. About the only other fact they reported is that Cardinal Pell, who led the Church of Australia during most of this period, repeatedly testified about it. They said nothing about his testimony or the controversy surrounding it.

The Catholic Press

The Catholic press was somewhat more informative than the Times/AP.

CRUX - Inés San Martín, the Vatican reporter for CRUX, identified (here) the “John Jay Report” that found 4% of American priests were child abusers. She also neglected to mention the bishops’ sponsorship of the study or any criticisms. More importantly, she provided data on specific religious orders involved in teaching, etc.: “40 percent of the members of the St. John of God Brothers in Australia have been accused of child sexual abuse, and more than 20 percent of the Salesians, the Christian Brothers, and the Marist Brothers have faced accusations.” It is incredible that such rampant child abuse was ignored for so long.

San Martin also reported that “the data shows alleged abuse declined considerably after the 1970s.” This is an important fact, and one I’ll return to later. It does not mean what it seems to. Keep in mind that the first child abuse scandal broke out in the mid-1980s in New Orleans; that the first reports of Boston’s abuse problem broke in 2002; and that the Irish and others suffered from continuing abuse. Ms. San Martin mentioned none of this, and implied the problem was largely solved before it even made the news.

She was somewhat more informative about Cardinal Pell: “He’s been cross-examined three times, the last time in Rome, but to date no charges have been filed against him.” She didn’t mention the evidence that could lead to such charges. Finally, she reported on a variety of Church activity designed to ameliorate the problem. Overall, she added some damaging detail and a good deal of apologetics.

National Catholic Reporter (NCR) – NCR carried the Catholic News Service report (here). Its headline was “Experts tell Australian abuse panel church must look at clerical culture.” It focused on such expert recommendations and said little about the facts.

The most striking comment was from Dr. Michelle Mulvihill, a psychologist and former Sister of Mercy. She said, “If this was a business, we'd be shut down a long time ago.” If even 3% of public school teachers sexually abused children, there would be an incredible uproar, far greater than the response to school shootings. Yet there has been no federal or international action. There was a major international effort to eliminate the business in child slavery/prostitution. Clerical abuse has affected far more children than its commercial counterpart.

NCR also highlighted the recommendation of Thomas Doyle: “If you want to recommend one thing, it is that there has to be a primary concern on the care of the present victims … whose souls have either been damaged beyond repair or who are seriously suffering.” Doyle condemned “clericalism,” which he called “a virus that has infected the church,” creating “a culture of cover-up.” No recommendations were mentioned. He praised Pope Francis for laicizing three or four bishops, without mentioning that those bishops were themselves child abusers. He ignored the fact that Pope Francis has not acted against bishops who sheltered pederasts.

NCR also covered the testimony of Father Francis Moloney of Australia's Catholic Theological College: “we're basically dealing with a structure that is a pyramid, where you have the point at the top and everything flows down from the top ... with all the possibilities of use and abuse of power that take place in that sort of situation.” This prompted Dr. Mulvihill to declare, “All roads lead to Rome. It's all about who's in charge.” There were no further recommendations, nor any discussion of papal abuse of power.


What the Media Failed to Report

The Royal Commission published its opening session as a 23 page PDF, available here. One thing it makes very clear is that the Commission only used Church data, rather than collecting any data on its own. The media said little about this limitation, but it is a very serious one.

First, the Church has a long history of losing damaging data. In the present case, the Christian Brothers seemed to have lost or stopped recording data after 1959, and their lawyer said: “these cases are no longer reported in the Council minutes and there may well have been some decision made in the late 1950’s not to record these matters.” On page 16 the Commission notes that in general: “Documents were not kept or they were destroyed. Secrecy prevailed as did cover ups.” Secondly, victims were reluctant to report their problem to the Church that was responsible for the abuse in the first place. Furthermore, the Australian Church routinely failed to act on such reports and protected the abusers – part of Cardinal Pell’s testimony which the media ignored. This hardly encouraged victims to come forward.

The Commission noted that it sought evidence from the Vatican on April, 2014 (under Pope Francis), which replied that it was “neither possible nor appropriate to provide the information requested.”

An amazing fact the media failed to report: “The average time between the alleged abuse and the date a claim was made was 33 years.” Being raped or victimized is highly traumatic, especially in a culture like Australia’s. It took decades before victims were willing to report it to the Church. This is why the data shows that accusations decline after the 1970s. It is not that the crimes decreased, but rather that people victimized at a later point had not recovered sufficiently to report the crime.

This compounded the problem of only using Church data. If the government had set up a sort of crisis center and used public service announcements to encourage victims to call or drop in, I am certain that they would have obtained far more data. As it is, pederasts who became priests after 1980 are unlikely to have been charged due to the 33 year reporting delay. The true incidence of deviant clerics is far greater than 7%.

Missing Analyses and Conclusions

None of the media reported the Royal Commission’s general summary of how the Australian Church handled reports of abuse:

"The accounts were depressingly similar. Children were ignored or worse, punished. Allegations were not investigated. Priests and religious [workers] were moved. The parishes or communities to which they were moved knew nothing of their past. Documents were not kept or they were destroyed. Secrecy prevailed as did cover ups. Priests and religious were not properly dealt with and outcomes were often not representative of their crimes. Many children suffered and continue as adults to suffer from their experiences in some Catholic institutions."

The media, both secular and religious, tried to present Australia as if it was an isolated case. True, they mentioned the results of the John Jay Report on priestly child abuse in America, but this was mainly to suggest that the Australian figures were exaggerated – the opposite of the true situation. The Commission identified a consistent pattern of results across countries, which none of the media reported:

“Many of the findings of the Royal Commission in its published reports are consistent with the finding in the Irish report of the Commission of Investigation into the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin which was published in 2009. The report said that, in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse the Archdiocese of Dublin was preoccupied, at least until the mid-1990s, with ‘the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church, and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for the victims, were subordinate to these priorities’.”

The same was true in every city of the United States that was investigated. The media suppressed these facts and analyses that support charges of Church immorality and abuse of power.

Similarly, the Commission identified characteristics of the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church which furthered the sexual abuse problem: “The issues of a rigid hierarchy based on obedience to bishops and to the Pope, and lack of accountability to the faithful emerged as themes. The lack of women in positions of leadership was identified by many as a relevant factor.” None of the media reported this.

In short, while the media reported a few of the basic findings of Australia’s Royal Commission, - especially the 7% incidence rate of pederast priests – the media tried to undermine these results by comparison with a flawed John Jay Report and other considerations. Media suppressed critical facts as well as damaging analyses and conclusions. This is apologetics at its worst, placing the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church above the welfare of children and the laity. That is, the media provided comfort and support for an institution responsible for the sexual abuse of children, and did so at the expense of current and future victims of that institution. This dismaying fact, along with its implications, deserves our attention.

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