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Published: 18 December 2017
Author: Kate Malone

Commission wants changes to catholic church canon law

The Royal Commission’s final report: in detail

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (‘the Commission’) has now officially come to an end.  The final report was tabled in Parliament on 15 December 2017.

This week, Ryan Carlisle Thomas examines in more details specific recommendations of the report in a series of articles. Today, it’s the Catholic Church.

More than one third of survivors from catholic institutions

A key focus of the Commission’s work has been on the wrongdoings of religious institutions, in particular the Catholic Church. The Church have been heavily investigated throughout the Commission’s various public hearings and private sessions and the Commission have dedicated one volume of their report to assessing their failings. The Commission’s statistics indicate that 14.5% of survivors who approached the Commission through private sessions said they were abused while involved in religious activities, such as attending a church or seminary.

The Commission goes one step further and states that of the survivors who said they were abused in an institution, 58.6% said they were abused in an institution managed by a religious organisation. Of the survivors who were abused in a religious organisation, 61.8% said that the institution was managed by the Catholic Church.

In other words, 36.2% of all survivors who attended a private session with the Commission were abused in a religious institution managed by the Catholic Church.

At Ryan Carlisle Thomas, we have acted for many clients who allege abuse against members of the clergy, many who would be considered to be well-known offenders whose crimes were actively concealed by the Church who moved offending priests from parish to parish. 

The Commission has considered a range of factors that may have contributed to the occurrence of child sexual abuse within the Church, including a combination of factors relevant to the individual perpetrator as well as cultural factors specific to the Church.

A reluctance to challenge priests

One of the cultural factors that the Commission focused on was the notion that a priest is a sacred person, which allowed priests to wield their power without any real checks and balances. The idealisation of the priesthood and the Church in some cases caused senior religious figures to refuse to accept that priests were sexually abusing young children. The strict hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church also came under scrutiny, with the Commission claiming that this hierarchical structure contributed to the cover up of child sexual abuse as the decisions of senior Church leadership in relation to incidents of child sexual abuse often went unchallenged.

The notion of the ‘pastoral approach’, which requires superiors to treat dismissal from the priesthood as a ‘last resort’, has also contributed to the Church’s failure to appropriately deal with complaints according to the Commission, as religious superiors are encouraged to consider alternatives to dismissal, even for crimes which clearly warrant the most severe of punishments.

Call for new "canon law" to address child abuse

Canon law, the Catholic Church’s exclusive system of governance, was also heavily criticised by the Commission. The Commission stated that the canon law in relation to disciplining religious figures who sexually abused children was complex and not well understood. The Commission recommended that the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference ought to request that the Holy See amend the 1983 Code of Canon Law to create a new canon, or series of canons, specifically relating to child sexual abuse.

Specifically, the Commission recommends that canon law relating to child sexual abuse ought to be classified as canonical crimes rather than moral failings or breaches of the oath of celibacy, as the view that they were simply moral failings was found to contribute to the failure to handle complaints properly by the Church. The Commission also recommends that delicts relating to child sexual abuse should apply to any person with responsibility in the Church, regardless of whether they are ordained or not.

Lastly, the Commission also states that the possession/distribution of pornographic images by religious figures should be amended to refer to minors as those under the age of 18 rather than under the age of 14, as is the case in the rest of society. 

It is clear that the Commission’s rigorous investigation into religious institutions has provided a level of transparency and understanding that has not been seen before in Australia.

However, if religious institutions are serious about eradicating child sexual abuse within their ranks, they must embrace the Commission’s opinions and implement their recommendations, particularly in relation to the Catholic Church’s canon law which is outdated when it comes to matters of child abuse.

Sadly, recent public statements from the Church have shown worrying signs, with Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart and Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher, both stating that they do not support any changes to confession that would force a priest to report information regarding child sexual abuse to authorities. If the Church continues to pick and choose which recommendations they will consider, they are in danger of undermining the hard work that the Commission has put into their investigation over the past 5 years.