Government report slams Catholic Church for cover-ups

By a Broken Rites researcher (article updated 13 November 2013)

Australia's first parliamentary inquiry into church child-sex abuse tabled its report on 13 November 2013. The report, commissioned by the Victorian State Parliament, criticises the Catholic Church's culture of cover-up and it recommends changing the laws behind which the Catholic Church has been sheltering.

The report recommends:

MAKING it compulsory for church authorities to report church-related crimes to the police;

MAKING it a criminal offence if a person in authority conceals any church sex-crimes;

A CHILD endangerment offence - making it a criminal offence for people in authority to knowingly put a child at risk, or fail to remove them from risk;

EXPANDING grooming offences to create a separate offence for grooming a child regardless of whether sexual assault actually occurs;

CIVIL law reforms to make it easier for victims to sue non-government organisations, including churches.

The inquiry's chairperson, Georgie Crozier MP, said there had been "serious breaches of laws" uncovered by the inquiry, and it was time to change the law.

She said that organisations, including the Catholic Church, covered up cases of child abuse to protect their reputation and finances.

Committee member Andrea Coote said that the Catholic Church had minimised and trivialised the child sex-abuse problem, kept the community in ignorance, and ensured that perpetrators were not held accountable, so that children continued to be abused.

She said: "We found that today’s church leaders view the current question of abuse of children as a 'short-term embarrassment' which should be handled as quickly as possible to cause the least damage to the church’s standing. They do not see the problems as raising questions about the church’s own culture."

 Ms Coote said the betrayal of trust at a number of levels of the church hierarchy was in such contrast to the religion’s stated values that many Catholics found the betrayal almost impossible to acknowledge. The church had developed a "sliding morality", compartmentalising the issues to avoid the "obvious moral conflicts". The church’s own submission barely mentioned past church policies, and was expressed mainly in the present tense, she said.

Further recommendations

Besides recommending new criminal laws, the report suggests way to make it easier for victims to seek justice. These include ensuring that organisations are held accountable and vicariously liable, and that any organisation receiving government funding or tax exemptions are incorporated and insured. This would eliminate the so-called Ellis defence, by which the Catholic Church successfully argued it was not an entity that could be sued.

The report recommends strengthening prevention systems such as the working-with-children checks, and increasing scrutiny and monitoring of organisations.

Government action?

Victoria's Premier, Denis Napthine, said that the abuse detailed in the report was "absolutely appalling" and that church authorities should hang their heads in shame.

Dr Napthine said the government would immediately begin drafting legislation that reflected the committee’s recommendations including:

-         a new criminal offence for “grooming” a child

-         a new child-endangerment offence

-         removing statute of limitations (that is, the time limit) for obtaining justice regarding offences

-         making it a crime to conceal child-abuse offences

Dr Napthine was raised in a Catholic household and attended a Catholic school.

"I can’t claim to be a practising Catholic at the moment, but let me say I’m ashamed and embarrassed by the actions of the Catholic Church," Dr Napthine said. “The leaders of the Catholic Church who were involved in some of these actions ought to absolutely hang their heads in shame, and that’s the least of what they should do."

He called on all institutions and organisations to accept the recommendations and urged them to “read every word of this report.”

On establishing a victims-of-crime fund for abuse victims, Dr Napthine said the government would thoroughly investigate all recommendations.

More background

The Victorian inquiry held more than 160 hearings over nine months in late 2012 and early 2013.

The inquiry heard evidence from victims, their families, experts, and other professionals. Almost half of its hearings were held in secret.

The inquiry considered more than 400 written submissions, including two written submissions from Broken Rites.

The inquiry was conducted by the Victorian Parliament's Family and Community Development Committee. The hearings were held by six backbench members of parliament, as an addition to their normal duties. That is, as well as conducting this inquiry, these six parliamentarians have had to continue administering their local office in their electorate and they have had to attend the normal sittings of the State Parliament.

The official title of this Victorian investigation is "an Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Non-Government Organisations". Therefore, the word "handling" gave  Broken Rites an opportunity to highlight the church authorities' cover-up.

Broken Rites, in its two written submissions, demonstrated how the church culture has intimidated the child-victims into remaining silent, and typically this silence has continued for many years until the victim reaches adulthood (or perhaps until after the victim's parents have died). And if a victim finally complains to the church authorities, the church's response is often evasive and defensive.

The committee’s priority was to find out what happened AFTER the abuse, not just the details of what the perpetrator did. The inquiry has looked at how the police, the churches and non-government organisations could handle complaints better next time. The emphasis is on the future, rather than compensating victims or convicting abusers.

Broken Rites recommends that, if you want your perpetrator to be brought to justice, you need to have a confidential chat with detectives in the Sex-crimes and Child-Abuse unit of the state police force. The Victoria Police revently established a special unit of detectives, called the "Sano Taskforce", to help victims of church-related abuse.

 The Victorian Parliament's inquiry paved the way for a national Royal Commission which was later established by the Australian Federal Government. The  Royal Commission is expected to continue for several years.