By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
More than 1,800 Catholic Church figures and 4,444 allegations of abuse.
Horrific numbers, which a senior Catholic Church figure has described as ‘shocking’ and ‘indefensible’ at the 50th public hearing of the Royal Commission – the 16th hearing dealing with abuse within the Catholic Church.
The three-week hearing currently underway in Sydney is examining the policies and procedures followed by the Catholic Church in Australia in relation to protecting children, including the institution’s responses to allegations of abuse.
Cover ups, threats and bribes
Data that has been presented for the very first time paints a damning picture of systemic child abuse within the Church – conduct that’s been going on, condoned and covered up since the 1950s.
Statistics released by the Royal Commission suggest that of the 1,880 alleged perpetrators, 572 were priests, and the average age of victims was 10 for girls and 11 for boys.
In her opening address to the public hearing, Gail Furness SC described the victims’ personal accounts of abuse as “depressingly similar”’.
She remarked that evidence suggests the allegations were not investigated. Priests and religious figures were moved to communities where nothing was known of their past, and documents were discarded or destroyed.
The Church’s response to reports of abuse was to offer ‘hush money’ or threaten families with ex-communication – conduct which occurred from the Vatican down.
Church heads from all over Australia have come to Sydney to attend the hearings, but our most senior Catholic Cardinal George Pell has been defiant in the face of allegations, failing to personally attend any of the hearings.
For the past four years, the Royal Commission has been investigating how institutions across the country, including schools, churches, sports clubs and government organisations, have responded to allegations of abuse.
60 per cent of all victims who attended private Royal Commission sessions reported sexual abuse at faith-based institutions. Of those, almost two-thirds reported abuse in Catholic institutions.
Archbishop of Brisbane Mark Coleridge released a video saying he hopes that the “blood, sweat and tears would produce justice and healing and ensure that the future is much safer than the past has been.”
But Francis Sullivan from the Catholic Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council described the newly-released figures as tragic. “Each entry in this data, for the most part represents a child who suffered at the hands of someone who should have cared for, and protected them,” he said.
The Royal Commission is expected to continue until the end of this year, after which it will make recommendations for change, as well as ‘redress’ for victims which may include lump sum financial compensation and other forms of assistance, such as counselling, medical expenses and other support as required.