BRISBANE Archbishop Mark Coleridge has hit back at the findings of a new study, which claims the Church in Australia has done less to safeguard children in its care than its counterparts in other countries.
The study, Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church by the Centre for Global Research at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, has for the first time compiled the findings of 26 royal commissions, police investigations, judicial probes, government inquiries, church studies, and academic research from around the world since 1985.
However, Archbishop Coleridge described the 384-page RMIT report released this month and widely reported in Australia and in the New York Times “as not as up-to-date as it might be nor is it the last or even the most authoritative word in this area”.
“It seems to reflect the situation of earlier times in what is a fast-moving scene,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
The report found the Catholic Church in Australia “lagged significantly behind other comparable countries in relation to developing safeguarding policies and protocols” to protect children.
For example, the Australian church has not appointed representatives in each parish charged with safeguarding children or provided “safe environment training” to all Catholic employees, the report said.
“Any suggestion that the Catholic Church in Australia has led the way in child protection is not sustainable in face of the initiatives in other countries nor has there been much accountability or evaluation in Australia,” the report said.
Lead author Desmond Cahill, a professor of intercultural studies at RMIT and an adviser to the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse, and his co-author Dr Peter Wilkinson, a researcher in Catholic culture, were both ordained priests who resigned from church ministry in the 1970s, but remain practicing Catholics.
“I’m not sure that the researchers ever appeared in the Archdiocese of Brisbane – certainly I had no word of their visit,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
“But what they write doesn’t reflect the situation in Brisbane.
“We do have parish safeguarding officers.
“We have trained some and are seeking to offer proper training to as many as possible.
“We also have external auditing of how parishes are doing with safeguarding.”
Almost 6000 Church volunteers across the Brisbane archdiocese have participated in safeguarding training over the last three years and auditing has been in place in each parish since 2015.
Seminarians have received safeguarding training annually for the past three years, and safeguarding training of all community support staff – aged care, disability services in Centacare – was introduced last year.
The RMIT analysis noted there had been a substantial decline in clerical child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church worldwide since the 1980s.
Offences were still being committed but rarely, the researchers found it was impossible to conclude that mandatory celibacy had directly caused child sexual abuse.
The study authors also acknowledged that the Australian church has made progress in dealing with abuse in its schools.
Archbishop Coleridge described Catholic schools in Brisbane and elsewhere in Australia as “probably the safest places in the nation for a child to be.”
“Catholic Education is second to none in the area of safeguarding,” he said.
Archbishop Coleridge said the Church’s safeguarding effort was “a work in progress… with a long way to go”.
“Because it’s not just a matter of changing procedures and protocols but of building a culture, and that takes time,” he said.
Archbishop Coleridge said comparisons with other countries were difficult “because the situations are so different”.
“Australia has done some things well and some things badly, but that’s true of any country. The same could be said of the Catholic Church.
“We’re doing some things well and some things less than well. But that’s true surely of any comparable institution.”
This month, the Archdiocese of Brisbane hosted a speaking visit by Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, who heads the Centre for Child Protection in Rome, and is a key figure in the Holy See’s response to the need to build a new culture of safeguarding.
Fr Zollner spoke to bishops, priests, church workers and parish leader during his Brisbane visit – part of an ongoing educational effort to raise safeguard awareness and change culture.