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Church needs state help to deal with abuse

  • 02 November 2012

These are not easy times for Catholic priests; and they have never been easy times for those children in our society who have been sexually abused, a disproportionate number of them by Catholic priests.

When in Sydney in July 2008, Pope Benedict XVI apologised in these words:

I ... acknowledge the shame which we have all felt as a result of the sexual abuse of minors by some clergy and religious in this country. Indeed, I am deeply sorry for the pain and suffering the victims have endured and I assure them that, as their pastor, I too share in their suffering. These misdeeds, which constitute so grave a betrayal of trust, deserve unequivocal condemnation.

I adopt his apology without demurrer.

Whatever our religion or none, whatever our love or loathing of the Catholic Church, what is to be done in the name of law and justice? Clearly the Church cannot be left alone to get its house in order. That would be a wrongful invocation of freedom of religion in a pluralist, democratic society.

The state may have a role to play. As our elected politicians decide how best to proceed, they need assistance from lawyers committed to justice, not lawyers acting primarily to protect or condemn the Church. The Church in Victoria has admitted that 'in the past 16 years, about 620 cases of criminal child abuse have been upheld by the Church in Victoria'. In the Archdiocese of Melbourne alone, 301 complaints have been upheld since 1996.

Professor Patrick Parkinson, probably the nation's most experienced academic lawyer in the field, having conducted the 2009 Study of Reported Child Sexual Abuse in the Anglican Church and having advised the Catholic Church on its Towards Healing protocol, informed the Victorian Parliament last month:

[T]here were 44 allegations of abuse [since 1990] within the Anglican diocese of Melbourne which fitted within the criteria of our study.

Archbishop Hart [the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne] referred to 60 priests ... of the archdiocese of Melbourne, who are substantiated offenders against children. We found 78 across the country against whom allegations were made in the Anglican Church. It gives you a sense of the scale of the problem.

If the Anglican and Catholic figures are statistically comparable, we all need to know the explanation for the discrepancy. If there be particular problems in the Catholic Church, they need to be identified for the good of all citizens, not just Catholics.

Parkinson says 'we