For the first time in Australia, a ground-breaking research study has analysed the systemic reasons why the abuse of children has plagued the Catholic Church worldwide.
Taking five years to complete, it is the most comprehensive report on the issue ever produced.
Based on their analysis of a vast array of theological and scientific studies, the authors outline a matrix of factors that have contributed to the tragedy – cultural, historical, organisational, social, psychological and theological.
The report, “Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: An Interpretive Review of the Literature and Public Inquiry Reports”, has been published by the Centre for Global Research at RMIT University.
Its authors, Professor Des Cahill and Dr Peter Wilkinson, are both ordained priests who resigned from church ministry in the 1970s.
Among the report’s main findings:
- While not the direct cause, mandatory celibacy has been and remains the major precipitating risk factor for child sexual abuse. The best studies across the world show that about one in 15 priests offended, though rates differed across dioceses and among religious congregations.
- Young and vulnerable Catholic children, especially boys, were and remain at risk from psychosexually immature, sexually deprived and deeply frustrated priests and religious brothers lacking intimacy, particularly those who have not resolved their own sexual identity and whose thinking is deeply distorted and mutated towards children.
- Though homosexuality is not a direct cause of abuse, the deeply homophobic environment within the Church and its seminaries, based on the teaching that homosexuality is an intrinsically disordered state and that all gays must lead a celibate life, contributes to psychosexual immaturity.
- While there are other factors, the risk of offending has been much higher among religious brothers with little contact with women – educated at male-only schools and trained for religious life in male-only institutions before being appointed to male-only schools and living in all-male communities. The lack of the feminine and the denigration of women within Church structures is one key, underlying risk factor in the abuse.
- Priest and religious predators have benefited from easy access to children in parishes and schools, particularly those living in one-priest presbyteries and with access to a car. The risk was especially high in countries like Australia and Ireland which historically had a large number of orphanages and residential schools.
- The risk of predation is highest in residential settings. That risk continues today, particularly in India and Italy, which have a significant proportion of the Church’s remaining 9,500 orphanages.
- Pope Pius X’s 1910 decision to lower the age at which children make their first confession to seven years indirectly contributed to putting more children at risk.
- Popes and bishops created a culture of secrecy, leading to a series of gross failures in transparency, accountability, openness and trust as they endeavoured to protect the Church’s reputation as an all-holy institution above all else, even at the expense of children’s safety.
Other findings were:
- The Church has on several occasions in its history allowed the seal of confession to be broken.
- The Church failed to confront the culture of clericalism which puts too large a gap between priest and people.
- The Church generally failed to hold local and national plenary councils or synods throughout the 20th century.
- The Church has failed throughout its history to develop a theology of the child.
Cahill, who assisted the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2015, said: “It’s been variously described as a problem or crisis or scandal or nightmare or scourge, but the sexual and emotional abuse of children within Catholic settings by priests, religious brothers and sisters, is ultimately a tragedy of immense proportions.
“Many thousands of lives across the world have been badly damaged, if not destroyed, in the continuing and tragic saga of the sexual abuse of children, which can be traced back to New Testament times in the first century.
“It has become an unholy mess. It has always been an issue for the Church, not just in the 20th century.
“Peter Wilkinson and I set out to try to answer the question: Why has the Catholic Church and its priests and religious brothers, more than any other religious denomination, become synonymous with the sexual mistreatment of children?
“Our backgrounds have allowed us not only to understand in depth the workings of the Church in Australia, but also of the Holy See in Rome where we both studied at postgraduate level in pontifical universities.”
Cahill served for many years on the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Council for Pastoral Research and has been co-convenor of For the Innocents, a support and advocacy group for victim survivors.
Wilkinson is a founding member of Catholics for Renewal, a Melbourne-based group advocating for a renewed Catholic Church for the 21st century.
Story: David Glanz