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Published: 22 February 2017
Author: RCT Abuse Law team with research assistance from Jessica Mackay

What is the cause of child abuse in the Catholic Church?

The Royal Commission continued its investigations this week into the current policies and procedures of Catholic Church in Australia with an even more persistent analysis of the root causes of the problem of child abuse.

Several bishops were yesterday quizzed on their views. Evidence was heard from Archbishop Christopher Prowse, Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn, Archbishop Julian Porteous, Archbishop of Hobart, and Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv, Bishop of Parramatta.

15.1% of priests in Sale, Victoria with claims of abuse

As we previously blogged, this particular hearing has seen the release of some alarming statistics, which were added to yesterday.

During Archbishop Christopher Prowse’s evidence (who was appointed as Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Sale between 2008 and 2013) the Commissioners pointed out that 15.1% of Priests at Sale were identified as having had claims made against them, or double the average.

In Archbishop Julius Porteous’ evidence it was revealed that 1 in 14 or 7% of Priests of the Catholic Church have engaged in sexual acts with children.

In evidence, Bishop Long explained that upon arriving in Australia as an adult, he was himself a victim of sexual abuse by clergy and since then has sought to attain justice and dignity for other victims.

Tsunami effect of the abuse in the Catholic Church

Questions put to both Archbishop Prowse and Archbishop Porteous yesterday focused on one critical issue:

Is the tsunami of child sexual abuse within the Church largely a product of the acts of individuals; OR is it the unique multiple features of the institutional church, such as its structure and clerical culture, that contribute to a climate in which the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy became possible?

Archbishop Julius Porteous offered the opinion that it was as a result of the individual circumstances in the perpetrators own life, their dealings with their own sexuality, coupled with their immaturity, which were the significant influencing factors in the betrayal of their priesthood.

In response, it was put to Archbishop Porteous that it was instead the combined factors of the theology of sexuality (requirement of celibacy), the structure of power relations, hierarchical authority, clerical culture, and seminary formation which were responsible for the sexual abuse. It was emphasized by the Commission that no one factor can be looked at in isolation: it is only when the factors are looked at as a collective whole that the question can be answered.

The Commission yesterday attempted to highlight the significant role that the structure and clerical culture of the Catholic Church has played in the tragedy that was being investigated, rather than as a consequence of the actions of the individual perpetrators alone.

Archbishop Christopher Prowse himself described the culture of clericalism as a disease and an abuse of power. Bishop Long, the first Australian bishop of Vietnamese background stated that the church’s institutional dynamics, titles and privileges are a breeding ground for “clerical superiority and elitism”. Bishop Long was also of the view that the Church should review mandatory celibacy which he believes is what separates the clergy from parishioners.

Throughout the decades during which Ryan Carlisle Thomas has acted for the survivors of abuse within the Church, the culture of secrecy and isolation within the Church has been noted by many survivors.

All too frequently we hear accounts of priests justifying the abuse by alleging they were acting on God’s instructions; a reason why many children failed to report the abuse at the time it occurred.

It is evident that in order for the Catholic Church to accept the reality and responsibility of the tragedies of the past, it must become more accountable and transparent.  As Bishop Long stated: “there’s no accountability that reaches outwards or downwards, and that’s the critical problem”.

The Vatican has declined to provide requested documents about Australian priests to the Royal Commission. If so, the claim made by bishops there is now a better acceptance of responsibility is largely undermined.

Further, it is only when the above factors are looked at in combination that the Church will be able to move forward and address the crucial issues surrounding the Church’s structure and culture which are at the very heart of the problem. A strong message must be sent to the Vatican that it must never again orchestrate child sexual abuse.

Perhaps the outstanding question of the day ought to be: how after all these investigations does the Church still not understand?

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