Opinion:Child sexual abuse and Australia's Catholic church

PHOTO: Very Well

CANBERRA - The Royal Commission into the Institutional Responses of Child Sexual Abuse has undertaken the important tasks of investigating the extent of child sexual abuse in institutions in Australia and of providing a hearing for the victims of child sexual abuse - many of whom have suffered significantly.

 I am not here seeking to disparage the work of the Royal Commission, much less understate the evils perpetrated on the victims of serious forms of child sexual abuse by priests and others. My purpose instead is to give a balanced account of the findings of the Royal Commission which unfortunately have been largely misreported by the media.

 A general impression of the findings of the Royal Commission is that 7 percent of all Catholic priests in Australia are paedophiles. For instance, the headline in the Daily Mail on the 7th of February, 2017 was, “Shocking church data finds SEVEN percent of all Catholic priests are accused paedophiles – and in some orders that number jumps to more than one in five.” However, this is simply not true. To begin with, the 7% figure is not an actual number but is instead the product of a weighted methodology that has included most Catholic priests over a sixty year period.

 The 7 percent figure is not an actual number because it does not include priests who were in ministry for less than two years. This is significant as evidence suggests that most offenders in the Church do not offend in the early years of their ministry. Furthermore, the figure of 7 percent is likely to be inflated as a consequence of instances in which one and the same perpetrator was counted more than once. This likely duplication of alleged offenders arises because of the Commission’s practice in cases in which the identity of the alleged offender is unclear; if the identity is unclear it was assumed the person was not one of the already identified offenders.

 Most important, the 7 percent figure does not reflect the current situation in the Catholic Church in Australia. During the period 2000-2010 less than ten Catholic priests in total were the subject of a first allegation of child sexual abuse. For the period commencing in 2010, this number has dropped to less than five. During the period 2000-2010  0.1% of Catholic priests were the subject of a first allegation of child sexual abuse.

 It is also worth noting that the 7 percent figure includes all claims of child sexual abuse against Catholic priests, including claims that have not been investigated. It is likely that a number of these claims are false claims.  It is well-known in the criminal justice area that large numbers of unsubstantiated complaints typically include false claims.

 Indeed, the NSW Government Guiding Principles for Government Agencies Responding to Civil Claims of Child Sexual Abuse includes the following quote which allows for the possibility of these claims. “The Guiding Principles…do not prevent NSW Government agencies from protecting the proper and legitimate interests of the State, which include legitimate steps to defend claims, including where a claim is vexatious, unmeritorious or an abuse of process.”  

 Unsubstantiated claims that are not vexatious but nonetheless made decades after the alleged offence occurred are not without evidentiary problems, especially if the alleged victim was a child at the time of the alleged offence. Furthermore, at least some of the claims made to the Royal Commission rely on recovered repressed memories. In mainstream psychology, these kinds of claims are generally held to be unreliable.  

 Of the claims that have been substantiated, we have no way of differentiating the seriousness of the alleged offences. The Royal Commission has a very broad definition of child sexual abuse, yet the survey instrument used by the Royal Commission does not ask about the nature of the alleged acts of child sexual abuse that were the subject of a claim. In a research project funded by the Royal Commission (Risk profiles for institutional child sexual abuse), it is claimed that the most common forms of child sexual abuse for Catholic priests are touching a child under the victim’s clothing and over the clothing. There were far fewer incidents of oral sex or penile penetration.  This is not to say that less serious forms of child sex abuse are acceptable, however, here as elsewhere in law and morality, it is important to distinguish very serious from less serious offences.

 It is often overlooked that the Royal Commission defines a child as anybody under the age of 18 years. However, the age of consent in Australia is 16 or 17 years of age depending on the particular state law. This has been the case for decades. Accordingly, many individuals defined by the Royal Commission as children are legally entitled to engage in consensual sexual relations, including with priests. However, there is a complication in the case of children in special care and, in particular, in pastoral care provided by priests.

 Moreover, there is a  further complication in relation to historic cases of child sexual abuse because laws relating to sexual relations with 16 and 17-year-olds have changed over time. It is currently an offence in some states to engage sexually with 16 or 17-year-olds in special care, including in pastoral care provided by priests. (This law is not in force in Queensland, Tasmania and the Commonwealth). However, this law only came into force in NSW in a nascent form (Carnal knowledge by a teacher) in 2002. Therefore, prior to 2002, it was not a criminal offence for an adult to have a sexual encounter with a 16 or 17-year-old in special care.  

 Unfortunately, the Royal Commission does not give us a comprehensive breakdown of the ages of the alleged victims of child sexual abuse. We are given an average age – 11.4 years of age for all claimants, and a percentage number of alleged victims who were under 13 and over 13. Therefore, we do not know how many of the 40 percent of alleged victims over 13 fall into this category. It may well be the case that some of the allegations of child sexual abuse were, in fact, legal acts at the time of the alleged offences.

 On another note, most of the alleged offences that were reported to the Royal Commission were male on male. This is significant if we consider changes in the laws relating to homosexuality in Australia. It was as late as 1997 that homosexuality was decriminalised in all states of Australia. Therefore, it is possible that in some cases bishops were protecting homosexual priests who had sexual relations with consenting males over the age of sixteen and who would otherwise have been subject to criminal charges for homosexual behaviour. If so, then the young males in question were also being protected from criminal charges.

 The findings of the Royal Commission show that there was a peak in allegations of child sexual abuse in the 1960s and the 1970s followed by a sharp decline in the mid-1980s. This figure is consistent with overseas inquiries. Yet, a problem with the current numbers arises because, on average, reports of child sexual abuse in Australia have occurred 33 years after the alleged incident. There are many reasons given for the delay in reporting alleged offences. Some victims of child sexual abuse did not feel confident reporting offences at the time, others were not aware of the damage that had been done to them until later in life, and still others came forward because of the Royal Commission. Therefore, it may well be true that the current figures of child sexual abuse are underestimated as the Royal Commission suggests.

 However, it is unlikely that the figures for alleged acts of child sexual abuse in the 2000s and beyond would be as high as the figures in the 1960s and 1970s. For one thing, there is a noticeable drop in alleged offences in the 1980s - some 30 years ago. Furthermore, it has been argued that claims of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in the United States peaked in the 1960s and 1970s at least in part because of the social and cultural context of the time - for instance, increased levels of deviant behaviour in society in general. 

 It is argued that the decline of allegations of child sexual abuse can be attributed to a growing awareness of the damage of child sexual abuse, improved vetting and reporting processes in the church, improved child safety processes in the church, better training for priests, the creation of government laws, and a greater awareness of the psychology of offenders. Certainly, research that has been funded by the Royal Commission claims that there has been a decline in child sexual abuse over the past 15-20 years, including in the Church in Australia (Risk profiles for institutional child sexual abuse).

 Furthermore, the delay in reporting, sometimes a delay of decades, is significant. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the Church to take action against an offender in the immediate aftermath of the offence if the offence has not yet been reported and will not be reported for some decades. Moreover, for evidentiary reasons among others, it is even difficult for the Church to take action against such offenders decades after their offences given these offences were not reported at the time of their offences but only decades later.

 In summary, there was a crisis of child sexual abuse in the Church, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s. However, this is, most likely, not the reality today.

 Virginia Ingram is a research fellow from the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology (PaCT), Charles Sturt University, Canberra. She is currently researching the Royal Commission.