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An Unholy Mess – Lifting the Lid on the Catholic Church and Child Sex Abuse

13 September 2017 at 4:41 pm
Lina Caneva
A ground-breaking research study has analysed the reasons why the abuse of children has plagued the Catholic Church in Australia and worldwide – examining what it describes as the “unholy mess” unfolding over many decades.

Lina Caneva | 13 September 2017 at 4:41 pm


An Unholy Mess – Lifting the Lid on the Catholic Church and Child Sex Abuse
13 September 2017 at 4:41 pm

A ground-breaking research study has analysed the reasons why the abuse of children has plagued the Catholic Church in Australia and worldwide – examining what it describes as the “unholy mess” unfolding over many decades.

The study by RMIT’s Centre for Global Research, called Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church, compiled the findings of 26 royal commissions, police investigations, judicial probes, government inquiries, church studies, and academic research from around the world since 1985.

And with the assessment came a warning that while the worst of the abuse might be over for Australia, the gravest potential for future abuse of children and teenagers was now in the estimated 9,600 orphanages the church still operated, including 2,600 in India and 1,600 in Italy.

The authors of the report which took five years to complete, Professor Des Cahill and Dr Peter Wilkinson, were both ordained priests who resigned from church ministry in the 1970s.

Based on their analysis of a vast number of theological and scientific studies, they outlined the group of factors that contributed to the abuse “tragedy” – cultural, historical, organisational, social, psychological and theological.

Cahill, who assisted the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2015, said while it had been “variously described as a problem or crisis or scandal or nightmare or scourge”, the sexual and emotional abuse of children within Catholic settings by priests, religious brothers and sisters, was “ultimately a tragedy of immense proportions”.

“Many thousands of lives across the world have been badly damaged, if not destroyed, in the continuing and tragic saga of the sexual abuse of children, which can be traced back to New Testament times in the first century,” Cahill said.

“It has become an unholy mess. It has always been an issue for the church, not just in the 20th century.

“Peter Wilkinson and I set out to try to answer the question: Why has the Catholic Church and its priests and religious brothers, more than any other religious denomination, become synonymous with the sexual mistreatment of children?

“Our backgrounds have allowed us not only to understand in depth the workings of the church in Australia, but also of the Holy See in Rome where we both studied at postgraduate level in pontifical universities.”

Cahill told Pro Bono News that he believed Australia had seen the worst of the abuse but change was still needed.

“The danger is if the underlying issues are not addressed, it could reappear in 20, 30 or 40 years time when the present events [in Australia] recede into memory,” he said.

“My concern at the moment is that, yes, it is still happening in churches in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe and maybe Latin America. Because the pattern is that there has to be a kind of precipitating event in a country which gets public attention for whatever reason.

“It opens up a pandora’s box and it all comes out. It hasn’t happened in the Eastern European countries. Poland being an example.

“In Australia it is a bit hard to know what was the exact precipitating event. We’ve got the case of Father Michael Glennon in 1978 and those [continuing] events through the 80’s with the now Senator Derryn Hinch. But it wasn’t till the 90’s it became a major issue.”

Glennon, was a Melbourne catholic priest who was jailed for child-sex offences in the 1980s, involving a long list of children, mostly boys. Glennon was released from prison for a time after Hinch broadcast his previous convictions. Glennon returned to jail on subsequent charges and died in prison aged 69.

The RMIT report delivered a number of significant findings around “cause”.

“The church has to rethink priesthood in the 21st century and mandatory celibacy is part of that,” Cahill said.

“Because one of the clear findings is that while not the direct cause, mandatory celibacy has been and remains the major precipitating risk factor for child sexual abuse.

“The best studies across the world show that about one in 15 priests offended, though rates differed across dioceses and among religious congregations.”

According to the report: “Young and vulnerable Catholic children, especially boys, were and remain at risk from psychosexually immature, sexually deprived and deeply frustrated priests and religious brothers lacking intimacy, particularly those who have not resolved their own sexual identity and whose thinking is deeply distorted and mutated towards children.”

The report said the deeply homophobic environment within the church and its seminaries, based on the teaching that homosexuality was an intrinsically disordered state and that all gays must lead a celibate life, contributed to psychosexual immaturity.

“While there are other factors, the risk of offending has been much higher among religious brothers with little contact with women – educated at male-only schools and trained for religious life in male-only institutions before being appointed to male-only schools and living in all-male communities,” it said.

“The lack of the ‘feminine’ and the denigration of women within church structures is another key, underlying risk factor in the abuse.”

The report also pointed the figure at church leadership.

“Popes and bishops created a culture of secrecy, leading to a series of gross failures in transparency, accountability, openness and trust as they endeavoured to protect the church’s reputation as an all-holy institution above all else, even at the expense of children’s safety,” it said.

Cahill served for many years on the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Council for Pastoral Research and has been co-convenor of For the Innocents, a support and advocacy group for victim survivors.

Wilkinson is a founding member of Catholics for Renewal, a Melbourne-based group advocating for a renewed Catholic church for the 21st century.

RMIT has also produced a podcast series on Child Sex Abuse and the Catholic Church.

Lina Caneva  |  Editor  |  @ProBonoNews

Lina Caneva has been a journalist for more than 35 years. She was the editor of Pro Bono Australia News from when it was founded in 2000 until 2018.

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