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Australian Catholic Church: 7 Percent Of Priests Sexually Abused Kids Over Decades

Pope Benedict XVI apologized in 2008 to victims of child sex abuse by Roman Catholic clergy at a mass in Sydney at St. Mary's Cathedral.
Rick Rycroft

Seven percent of Catholic priests in Australia between 1950 and 2010 allegedly sexually abused children, according to data provided by church authorities in a major investigation.

Australia is the latest country to unearth widespread, decades-long child abuse by Catholic Church authorities.

The findings were released by The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which launched in 2013 to look at child abuse in places like schools and government organizations.

It started surveying church authorities shortly afterward, in response to the high number of survivors who told the commission they were abused at a Catholic Church institution.

These stark findings represent the most comprehensive figures to date, and they were delivered by commission lawyer Gail Furness in her opening remarks at a public hearingin Sydney on church abuse.

Here is what the commission found:

  • 4,444 people reported child sexual abuse, which allegedly occurred at more than 1,000 different institutions between 1980 and 2015.
  • The average age of the victims was 10.5 for girls and 11.6 for boys.
  • The claims identified 1,880 different alleged perpetrators.
  • The reported perpetrators were not just priests — they also included religious brothers, lay people and religious sisters. The majority were religious brothers or priests, at 32 and 30 percent each.
  • 90 percent of the alleged perpetrators were male, 10 percent were female.
  • The severity of the problem varied by location. For example, in one particularly egregious case, 40.4 percent of religious brothers from the order St. John of God Brothers were accused of abuse. Three other such orders were found to have more than 20 percent of their brothers accused of such crimes. According to ABC, orders of brothers "often run schools and homes for the most vulnerable of children."

    Bernard Barrett, a representative of a victims support network, told ABC that victims of St John of God Brothers' members were often housed in "residential institutions, and many of the victims there had no relatives to come and see them. And so, it was open season."

    Furness did not go into detail about individual cases, but said many of them bear the same features:

    "The accounts were depressingly similar. Children were ignored or worse, punished. Allegations were not investigated. Priests and religious were moved. The parishes or communities to which they were moved knew nothing of their past. Documents were not kept or they were destroyed. Secrecy prevailed as did cover ups. Priests and religious were not properly dealt with and outcomes were often not representative of their crimes. Many children suffered and continued as adults to suffer from their experiences in some Catholic institutions."

    The commission has held hearings looking into 116 institutions.

    When it started gathering information on the Catholic Church in 2013, the church issued an apology statement calling the abuse "indefensible" for which the church is "deeply ashamed."

    Now, the scale of the abuse is becoming clearer. The head of the council coordinating the church's response said in a new statement that "these numbers are shocking, they are tragic and they are indefensible." Here's more from Francis Sullivan:

    "This data, along with all we have heard over the past four years, can only be interpreted for what it is: a massive failure on the part the Catholic Church in Australia to protect children from abusers and predators, a misguided determination by leaders at the time to put the interests of the Church ahead of our most vulnerable and, a corruption of the Gospel the Church seeks to profess."

    He added: "As Catholics we hang our heads in shame." In response to the allegations of abuse, he said that the church has established an independent body "to set standards within the Church for child safety." That includes auditing religious leaders' compliance with the standards and making the reports public.

    The commission has referred 309 of the cases to the police, according to Furness. That has resulted in 27 prosecutions; additionally, 75 cases are currently under investigation.

    Similar scandals have come to light around the world in the past few decades. In the United States, bishops received allegations of abuse against 5.9 percent of priests between 1950 and 2002, according to the watchdog group BishopAccountabiligy.org.

    Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
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