THE final hearing into the Catholic Church at the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse has revealed shocking data highlighting the extent of abuse in Church institutions spanning decades.
In the opening session of a three-week hearing, Senior Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission Gail Furness SC revealed a study of Catholic Church data found 4444 people alleged child sexual abuse in complaints to 93 Church authorities between January 1980 and February 2015.
The average age of abuse victims was 10.5 years for girls and 11.6 for boys.
“Of the 1880 identified alleged perpetrators 597 or thirty-two per cent were religious brothers, 572 or thirty per cent were priests, 543 or twenty-nine per cent were lay people and ninety-six or five per cent were religious sisters,” Ms Furness told the commission, in a hearing that was broadcast live across Australia.
“Overall seven per cent of priests were alleged perpetrators.”
This quoted figure covers the period from 1950 to 2010.
In that period in the Archdiocese of Brisbane, 9.3 per cent of priests were alleged perpetrators.
In the Archdiocese of Sydney the figure was 7 per cent and in Melbourne 8.1 per cent.
The Diocese of Sale, covering Victoria’s south-east, had the nation’s highest proportion of allegations of abuse.
The new data showed 15.1 per cent of its priests were alleged perpetrators of abuse between 1950 and 2010.
The hearing is examining current Church policies and procedures in Australia relating to child protection and child safety standards, as well as the Church response to allegations of abuse.
More than 20 per cent of the members of some Catholic religious orders – including Marist Brothers, Salesians of Don Bosco and Christian Brothers – were allegedly involved in child sexual abuse.
In one order, the St John of God Brothers, 40.4 per cent of all brothers were alleged perpetrators between 1950 and 2010.
This is the first public release of the data.
Ms Furness spoke of secrecy and cover-ups within the Church – paedophile priests being moved on, the suffering of victims following the alleged abuse and continued suffering now.
She said the accounts had been similar – children were ignored or, worse, punished.
And Ms Furness said documents about alleged perpetrators were not kept or were destroyed.
“Allegations were not investigated. Priests and religious were moved. The parishes or communities to which they were moved knew nothing of their past,” she said.
“Documents were not kept, or they were destroyed. Secrecy prevailed as did cover-ups.”
Ms Furness revealed the Holy See had refused to hand over documents involving Australian priests accused of abuse.
“The Royal Commission hoped to gain an understanding of the action taken in each case,” she said.
“The Holy See responded, on July 1, 2014, that it was ‘neither possible nor appropriate to provide the information requested’.”
Only 27 of the 309 Catholic abuse cases referred to the police have been prosecuted.
Another 75 are under investigation, and 66 others remain “pending”.
That leaves almost 50 per cent unaccounted for.
Francis Sullivan gives emotional response
The Catholic Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council chief executive officer Francis Sullivan acknowledged “a massive failure on the part of the Catholic Church in Australia to protect children” and “a corruption of the Gospel the Church sought to profess”.
“As Catholics we hang our heads in shame,” Mr Sullivan said.
“Let us not forget that every person who has come forward carries with them the suffering, damage and loss which child sexual abuse inevitably causes.
“They have borne the risk of further traumatisation in order to share their experiences.
“The fact that child sexual abuse has been perpetrated by those holding privileged positions of trust within the Church and the fact that many Church leaders then compounded the damage in various ways including in some cases covering up the truth is a tragedy in itself.
“… For even one child to have been abused by a Catholic priest or religious is appalling to all faithful Catholics as it is to all within our community.
“The hypocrisy involved in these historic failures is grossly unbefitting a Church which seeks to be, and should be, held to its own high standard.”
As he stood before to the commission, Mr Sullivan paused, overcome by emotion, before continuing with a summary of the abuse figures.
“One thousand two hundred and sixty-five Catholic priests and religious were the subject of a child sexual abuse claim,” he said.
“These numbers are shocking, they are tragic and they are indefensible.
“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.
“And let’s not forget the ripples of the abuse also felt by their family, friends and carers.
“These secondary victims need not only to be acknowledged but to be tangibly supported and compensated for the impact on their lives.
“The data is an indictment on the priests and religious who abused these children.
“It also reflects on the Church leaders who at the times failed to take steps to deal with the abusers, failed to call them to order and failed to deal with them in accordance with the law.”
Mr Sullivan also said the Church today was significantly different, with significant measures being taken to address the situation.
“The days of the Church investigating itself must be over,” he said.
“The most significant and far-reaching change is the establishment in November last year of a new independent body to set standards within the Church for child safety.
“This company, Catholic Professional Standards Limited, will audit and report on the compliance by bishops and religious leaders with the standards.”
Details about this new, not-for-profit public company, with its own governance structure, and with a board made up of lay professionals, is expected to be detailed during week three of the Royal Commission’s final hearing into the Church.
Catholic Professional Standards Limited will apply governance across all aspects of Catholic Church activities and will cover not only children, but anyone who comes into contact with the Church.
The company will audit the performance of bishops and religious leaders on how their services comply with the standards. The audit reports will be made public.
“It is vital that the culture of the Church that enabled the abuse of privilege and power that led to the crimes and cover-up be confronted head on, not only by those in positions of authority but also by the Catholic community as a whole,” Mr Sullivan said.
“Words are important, but the measure of commitment can only ever be gauged by actions.”