Crimes against children

Royal-Commission -Report-Cover-ABC

One of the major topics of discussion in Australia has been the publication of recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse set up to investigate child sexual abuse.

Over the past five years the Commission has sieved through nearly 8,000 pieces of evidence provided by survivors of sexual abuse. Its report, which runs into dozens of volumes and millions of words, includes 409 recommendations, some of an explosive nature. More than two-and-a-half thousand matters have already been reported to the police and more will no doubt follow. All this emphasises the magnitude of the undertaking.

It is very unfortunate that Christian organisations, including particularly the Catholic Church but also many others, bear the brunt of these accusations. For decades now, children in the care of priests and brothers, with whom they were expected to be safe, have been the target of paedophiles, resulting in lifelong physical and psychological trauma in most cases, and suicide in some.

The recommendations by the Commission appear drastic and far-reaching, aimed at eradicating this cancer from the community. Institutions meant to foster the well-being of children are particularly the target of these recommendations.

We are particularly concerned here about some recommendations that relate to the Catholic Church. They include abolishing the secret of the confessional: priests who obtain knowledge about practising paedophiles should, the report suggests, be obliged to divulge this information to the authorities.

This is such a fundamental issue that it is most unlikely to be acceptable to the Catholic Church. Already the Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, has stated that he would prefer to go to jail rather than break the seal of confession. One recommendation suggested by a well-known theologian is to ensure that priests should desist from giving absolution to such criminals.

It is important not to tar the whole organisation for the crime of some

Another very ticklish issue relates to whether the Catholic Church should stop insisting that priests be celibate. The report recommends that the Australian Catholic Church should request permission from the Vatican to introduce voluntary celibacy for diocesan clergy.

Compared to the issues relating to confession, this is of a lesser fundamental importance. Already the Church accepts married clergy from other denominations (eg, Anglican) who decide to join the Catholic Church. Orthodox Christian clergy have always had the right to marry and raise a family.

The injunction of celibacy on the priesthood in the Catholic Church goes back to the 3rd century AD. I do not believe that there are insuperable objections for such rules to be modified by subsequent Church Councils.

But whether celibacy is indeed the fundamental cause of paedophilia is still debateable. While Catholic clergy account for the majority of paedophiliacs as reported by the Royal Commission, many other members of religious organisations (where marriage is allowed), as well as non-clerical persons, have been accused of paedophilia.

Moreover, one must insist that the vast majority of priests in the Catholic Church are not paedophiles – something which is often forgotten or not given sufficient prominence. According to data released by the Catholic Church in Australia, seven per cent of priests between 1950 and 2009 were accused of sex crimes. While this figure may be an underestimate, and while even one paedophile is one too many, it is important not to tar the whole organisation for the crime of some.

Other recommendations relate to stricter selection of those who are in charge of children, including stricter psychological assessments.

One cannot disagree with a recommendation that any person convicted of sexual crimes (or even, I would add, known to have tendencies in this direction), should be removed from ministry. The practice of moving offending paedophiles from one school to another or one parish to another, as has been the practice in the past, should certainly be abandoned and such persons referred to the authorities.

It need not be added that all citizens are duty-bound to report any crime which they witness – and not just sex-related crimes.

[First published on on 24 December 2017]

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