After data from Australia’s highest board of inquiry revealed that seven percent of the country’s Catholic priests have been accused of sexually abusing minors, the Australian Church is responding, with one archbishop saying that he feels “shaken and humiliated.”
The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse on Monday released statistics showing that between 1980 and 2015, 4,400 people reported having been abused at more than 1,000 Catholic institutions across Australia.
Gail Furness, the lead lawyer assisting the commission, said the average age of the victims was 10.5 for girls and 11.5 for boys.
In her opening remarks, Furness also revealed that seven percent of priests in Australia had been accused of sexually abusing children between 1950 and 2010.
She also asserted that the Vatican had refused to hand over documents involving Australian priests accused of abuse in July 2014, with a Vatican communication saying that it was “neither possible nor appropriate to provide the information requested.”
The percentage of abusive priests in Australia is higher than that in the United Sates, where, according to a study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice commissioned by the U.S. bishops, approximately four percent of the priests who served from 1950 to 2002 had allegations of sexual abuse.
Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sidney released a video on Monday acknowledging that the Royal Commission has put numbers onto the crisis.
“To my shame and sadness, it would seem that Australia-wide, as many as 384 Catholic diocesan priests, 188 religious priests, 597 religious brothers and 96 religious sisters have had claims of child sexual abuse made against them since 1950,” Fisher said, saying the Church will not contest the numbers.
Claims have also been made against 543 lay church workers and another 72 whose religious status is unknown.
This means that nearly 2,000 Catholic Church figures, including priests, religious men and women and lay employees were identified as alleged perpetrators.
However, as Fisher notes in his message, the report presented on Monday doesn’t distinguish between claims proven at law from those that were untested, nor between those substantiated by some internal Church investigation from those that were accepted by the Church with no investigation.
The John Jay Report indicated that some 11,000 allegations had been made against 4,392 priests in the US. This number constituted approximately four percent of the priests who had served during the period covered by the survey (1950–2002).
According to the information revealed on Monday, among religious institutes, 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.
“The Church is sorry, and I am sorry, for past failures that left so many so damaged,” Fisher said in the video. “I know that many of our priests, religious and lay faithful feel the same: as Catholics, we hang our heads in shame.”
In the past four years, the Royal Commission has held 49 public hearings, 15 dealing with abuse in the Church.
The current inquest, the 16th for the Church, according to Fisher, won’t focus on particular cases but on the “big picture,” meaning two things: What factors caused the “historical child sex abuse cases in the Church and failures to respond adequately,” and what the Church has done and plans to do to address the issue by “way of changes to structures, policies and culture, the discernment of priestly and religious vocations, formation and supervision of those engaged in ministry, and so on.”
Despite the fact that the data shows alleged abuse declined considerably after the 1970s, “We are not complacent when it comes to child safety and to ensuring a child safe environment in the Church,” Fisher said, adding that the institution knows it’s responsible to ensure all the necessary measures for preventing this from happening again are in place.
Hearings will begin on Tuesday and will include Fisher as well as the archbishops or bishops of Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne and Canberra-Goulburn.
Cardinal George Pell, currently head of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, remains the highest Australian Church official to testify on alleged cover-ups. He’s been cross-examined three times, the last time in Rome, but to date no charges have been filed against him.
Ahead of the three-week examination, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, released a video published on the diocesan website on February 1, in which he warned about “grim moments” and some “shocks, inevitably.”
However, he also expected for the Church to be given the opportunity to tell “a better story of what has been done and what is being done.”
Coleridge said that despite this being “the final hearing” into the Catholic Church, there will be a story to be told beyond it, with the Commission presenting its final report at the end of the year. He said the challenge facing the Church is not only to change procedures, but also culture.
He closes the video asking the faithful to join him in the process, “so that together we can do everything possible to ensure a better future for the Church; a better future particularly for young people; and even more particularly for those who have survived abuse, that justice and healing may be done to them.”
According to reports from Australian media, it was allegedly shown in over 200 parishes in the Brisbane diocese at the end of this weekend’s services.
Archbishop Denis Hart, of Melbourne and President of the Australian Bishop’s Conference, released a letter on February 2, where he too lets the faithful know that the hearing may be a “difficult and even distressing time.”
“Deeply mindful of the hurt and pain caused by abuse, I once again offer my apology on behalf of the Catholic Church,” he wrote. “I am sorry for the damage that has been done to the lives of victims of sexual abuse. As Pope Francis said recently, ‘it is a sin that shames us’.”
On Monday, the day the report was presented by the Commission, Francis Sullivan, head of the Truth Justice and Healing Council, that coordinates the Catholic Church’s response to the inquiry, said the data reflected “a massive failure” by the Church to protect children.
“These numbers are shocking, they are tragic and they are indefensible,” a tearful Sullivan told the commission. “And each entry in this data for the most part represents a child who suffered at the hands of someone who should have cared for and protected them.”