Journalist PAUL DOBBYN spoke with an international expert on child sexual abuse in faith environments recently.
DR Monica Applewhite had a straightforward message about a complex issue when she visited Brisbane archdiocese recently.
It related to the scrutiny, which will be applied to the Catholic Church in the coming Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
“We certainly don’t want to be protecting the institution from the knowledge of its own history,” the international expert on child sexual abuse in faith environments told The Catholic Leader.
“This will involve a certain letting go.
“We can learn and recognise that this (the Royal Commission) may be a light that’s being cast on our challenges and our failings and mistakes that we’ve made, but we are not the only ones paying attention.
“Every other institution that serves children and youth is learning from it too.
“It will create a shifting of priorities, an improvement in the standard of care, and guidelines of what should be done in the future.”
The Austin Texas based researcher and practitioner in the field of abuse had already run several days of intensive workshops for Brisbane archdiocese’s clergy and pastoral workers including parish-based staff and youth ministry workers when she gave the interview.
A workshop she’d facilitated at upper Mt Gravatt that day had been attended by about 90 priests with more than 110 participating the previous day at the Fr Bernard O’Shea Inservice Centre at Wilston.
Ahead lay more workshops for Centacare and Catholic Education staff in Brisbane and Toowoomba.
She responded to questions including the difficulty but necessity of attempting to prevent child sexual abuse and of comparisons in rates of offending between Catholic and other religious and secular organisations.
Particularly interesting were her comments on the progress of similar investigations in the US and Ireland and of possible similarities and differences in what might happen in Australia in the coming Royal Commission.
Dr Applewhite brought a vast experience and scholarship to the Brisbane workshops, which started on July 8 and ran until July 16.
She has worked with sexual abuse in more than 20 different Christian and non-Christian faith communities as well as hundreds of secular organisations.
She has analysed more than 1800 cases of abuse in educational, secular and religious establishments and interviewed more than 350 sexual offenders.
Some sexual offenders instigated infrequent sexual abuse, which happened opportunistically, she explained.
Other offenders were far more purposeful.
“In the US, we had about 10,000 victims of institution-related sexual abuse come forward,” she said.
“About 137 men had abused about 2600 of those 10,000.
“Clearly those individuals began abusing from the beginning of their time in the priesthood and religious life until they were stopped or died.”
Yet research showed little difference between priests and ministers of other religions, Dr Applewhite said.
Public schools are known to have a higher rate of sexual abuse of minors than the Catholic Church did.
“This was discussed in the John Jay Report (into the Nature and Scope of the Problem of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic priests and Deacons in the United States),” she said.
“Accessibility is always one of the variables.
“Somebody may be more drawn or has more access to children and youth if they’re teaching in schools.”
Dr Applewhite’s significant involvement with the Catholic Church on sexual abuse issues in the US and Ireland led to questions about the likely impacts on the Australian Church of the impending Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
Victims of alleged sexual abuse and the general public had different responses in these countries, she said.
“In Ireland, people had a strong need that all of the hurts and wrongdoing should be accounted for before people felt they could move forward,” she said.
“For example, they’ve just got to chapter 20 of the Murphy report (an Irish Government investigation into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church).
“That report describes sexual abuse which occurred in the Archdiocese of Dublin.
“In other words, there had to be some detailing and telling of each and every story.
“The US was different… people were willing to move forward without necessarily demanding an accounting for every case.
“It’s possible that some individuals there felt they could come forward with a law suit and have their story told anonymously and have accounting for crimes in that way, I’m not sure, but the American mindset was very different.”
Dr Applewhite suspected Australians will be closer to the Irish way and agreed this meant the Royal Commission would go deep into the victims’ stories with a similar impact on the Australian Catholic Church.
However, from her perspective the Australian Church has “at least since the mid 1990’s” been in line with the Catholic Church elsewhere”.
“Many times too it’s been ahead, and has been willing to look at things with a fair bit of honesty,” she said.“It’s also lined up very well with progressive thinking of other youth-serving organisations here.
“With regards to the coming Royal Commission, I think the critical thing for Catholics to say: ‘We can weather this storm; we’ve weathered plenty of others.’
“We should not forget that this won’t kill us…it may hurt to know the harm that has been done to those who experience abuse, but in this process the standards of care will change. That part is very positive.”
“As a society Australia will say it’s very clear to us now that protecting children is more important than protecting an adult who is making a decision to use a child…or an institution to which this adult belongs.
“And maybe because the problem is so large, we the Catholic Church, were meant to bring everyone else along as well too.”