Clerical sex abuse in Australia: can you believe the statistics?

The headlines in Australian newspapers this week have not been kind to the Catholic Church.

Gail Furness, the lawyer for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, delivered a blistering speech outlining its findings to date about Catholic dioceses, religious orders and institutions.

Afterwards, the Sydney Morning Herald editorialised: “Now we know too, that sexual atrocities against children of a horrendous nature and on a horrendous scale have been committed within the Catholic Church in Australia over many decades.”

Ms Furness’s speech was based on statistics compiled in an accompanying research paper, “Proportion of priests and non‐ordained religious subject to a claim of child sexual abuse 1950‐2010”.

The statistics are cold numbers but behind them are horrifying stories of abuse by men (they are nearly all men) and women consecrated to God.

They are deplorable and inexcusable and cry out to the Almighty for redress.

The lives of many innocent children have been ruined.

Over the next month the Commission will build on the figures and case studies to investigate “the policies and procedures of Catholic church authorities” in relation to sexual abuse.

In the light of its findings, it plans to make recommendations on a number of issues of great concern to Catholics, like mandatory celibacy, the sacrament of confession, relations with the Vatican and formation of candidates for the priesthood and religious life.

While all Catholics, and especially their bishops, have to bear the burden of shame for this abominable sexual abuse, the Church still deserves to be treated fairly, on the basis of the facts.

Here are a few key problems with coverage of the Commission’s sessions.

  1. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that “In the past 35 years there were 1880 alleged perpetrators from more than 1000 Catholic entities”. This is not true but the mistake is understandable because of the complexity of the statistics in the Commission’s report. The truth is that the allegations made over the 35 years from 1980 to 2015 relate to 1880 alleged perpetrators dating between 1950 and 2010. In other words, the claims stretched over 60 – not 35 – years.
  2. The SMH report relates to “priests and non‐ordained religious”. In its telling of the story, the “1880 alleged perpetrators” seem to be all priests, religious brothers and a few nuns. But this is false, as a closer reading of the report reveals. Continue reading
  • Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.
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