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Child Abuse Royal Commission – a personal perspective

Posted by Secular on April 3, 2017

The following are my own personal observations based on several visits to public hearings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. I also include reading of media reports, and what I’ve learnt from contacts with interest groups. I recommend anyone in the Humanist Society, or anyone else for that matter, to go and sit in a public hearing for a day, to see the system in action.

The Royal Commission commenced in 2013, and was extended to 5 years. My overriding impression was the sheer gravitas of about 20 silks patiently absorbing every word of what was often very long and slow testimony – often peripheral or irrelevant. I longed to shout “But what about such and such?”

Witnesses giving testimony include some accused of abuse (many are in jail) or (more often) accused of covering up abuse. Typically they get pressed and questioned somewhat aggressively by tenacious Council Assisting – its good to see them squirm. Church officials explain the processes which were in place at the time, and which various Committees have since developed to provide checks. Academics give their view on the likely causes and proposed remedies. Public servants explain what the law required, and what they did at the time. Survivor groups and survivors tell of their ordeals and what should have happened.

Catholic Church Statistics

The Roman Catholic Church of Australia recently tabled their statistics (as ordered by the Commission). There were 4,444 alleged cases, of which 90% were boys (average age 11.5), and 10% were girls (average age 10.5). The abusers include ordained priests, non-ordained brothers in monasteries, and lay people. It is estimated that 7% of RC clergy were alleged abusers. This rose to 20% in religious orders, and to an amazing 40% of the (non-ordained) brothers in St John of God. It seems that paedophiles heard about the easy pickings and lack of penalties, and gravitated there.

These figures need some qualification: only a small proportion of the alleged offenders have admitted to an offence or been convicted. But on the other hand, there has been no evidence of false accusations, so it is likely that nearly all of these 4444 reported events were real.

On the other hand, in my opinion there are many offences not included in these figures, due to several factors:

• Many find it traumatic to report abuse, and the distribution of reporting age (average 33) suggests many have not reported, and some will die without reporting.

• Some tried to report at the time, but were not recorded by the church, and have not come forward a second time. This is likely, for example, due to the well-documented dismissive responses.

• There is a wide distribution of severity (touching, groping, talking dirty). For example, as a child in the 1950’s, I was groped by a minister; I regarded this as too minor to mention in the mores of the time, but it would now clearly be regarded as sexual abuse.

Thus a fairer estimate of the real number of offenders and offences might be an extra 20-100% over the church’s figures.

Non-mandatory Reporting

The Commission heard that abuse in the RC church sometimes came to light for the first time when one priest confessed to another. The sanctity of the confessional in the RC church (according to Canon Law from the Vatican) meant that it went unreported. There are problems with the lack of separation of the confession system (sin and repentance) from the justice system (crime and punishment).

Even the laws of the land were haphazard in this respect. Additionally there was an attitude of church privilege, when police often responded with “we are told the church is handling it in-house”.

Today, all states have mandatory reporting laws (Ref 2), which have recently been tightened up, and they all cover similar ground. This includes even suspicions of sexual abuse. (As an ethics teacher in primary schools for 7 years, I undergo child protection training and police checks each year.)

South Australia still allows an exemption for disclosures made in the confessional, and I believe that should change.

Responses at the Time of Reporting

The church’s immediate reactions to abuse being reported have been widely exposed as hopelessly inadequate. From various counselling courses and complaint handling training, I have picked up strategy for such cases:

Repeat it back (so they know you are listening).
Put it in other words (so they know you understand).
Make it clear they are not to blame, and they did the right thing in telling you.
Ask questions.
Make it clear they don’t have to put up with that.
Say you will immediately stop it happening…
…and will investigate.

In contrast, abuse complainants say the church officials responded with denial, blaming the victim, telling the victim to pray for forgiveness, and even George Pell’s “Don’t be ridiculous”.

Later Responses

The Catholic Church has performed no better in the long term. Many cases have been revealed where the perpetrator:

was moved to a new parish full of unsuspecting potential victims, and/or
was sent to sympathetic counselling.
If more serious, he was often placed on fully paid leave, or
was ultimately allowed to retire with a glowing reference, and with accolades.

Meanwhile, the unfortunate victims were blocked at every turn. They were often advised not to go to the police, and were not told which legal entity held the money and could be sued (The Ellis Defence). Where a settlement was made, the amount was inadequate, and victims had to agree to nondisclosure to get any payment at all. Even after one level of the church admitted the abuse happened, the next process again denied it. Can you imagine the extra trauma that this caused the victims, being labelled a liar and having to start again? This from a group which claims the ethical high ground, and preaches love and compassion!

Expert witnesses among church officials and academics suggested the following changes:

Allow marriage of priests? Celibacy was seen as a contributing factor, not a major cause.
Screen incoming recruits? There is limited ability to do that.
Appoint women to church boards (currently all men, women not take seriously)

Jehovah’s Witnesses

The practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and their attendance at the Royal Commission, was reported in detail by Paul Grundy (an escaped JW) at a recent talk (Ref 3).

This church prohibits masturbation, and youths are questioned every week by a male church elder. Surely even this amounts to child abuse and should be banned? If a child complains of abuse or otherwise criticises the religion, this will lead to ‘shunning’ – parents reject their own children! What could be more traumatic?

Church rules regarding allegations of misconduct by church officials require two to three witnesses before any action is taken (this reminds me of Moslem countries where a rape victim is not believed without four male or eight female witnesses). Thus child victims would remain trapped in the church with their abusers, with no authority figure to turn to. Unless they remain silent they can be expelled from their own family, as shown in instructional church videos.

Following grilling by the Commission, the JW management offered one small concession in their rules: the two complaints required to trigger reporting can now cover two separate events (eg two different children complaining about an abuser). But still, one child complaining does NOT trigger action! The Commission apparently was satisfied by this inadequate improvement.

Some of the Jehovah’s Witnesses have claimed an apostate-orchestrated attack by the Royal Commission! Do they think they’re above the laws of the land? As with many other churches, committees are run by men only – who are less sympathetic to child welfare.

Towards the Future

Hopefully the Commission will eventually make clear pronouncements on how to reform the offending institutions. Here are some changes discussed to date.

Interviewing Survivors

There are recommendations being developed for treating survivors, once the matter has been reported to authorities. Given that they often don’t trust any authority it’s better to have shorter but more frequent interviews, with the police (for example) out of uniform. When it comes to a criminal matter, some victims prefer a guilty plea so it’s all over without trauma. However, others would like a trial where they have a chance to speak, to hear a jury say the word guilty, and maybe even see a jail sentence imposed. (In NSW, an early guilty plea can attract a reduction in sentence of up to 25%.)

Compensation Schemes

Even after abuse is established, churches have almost always used a variety of legal and psychological measures to avoid or minimize paying compensation, such as the infamous Ellis Defence.

As far as government goes, the Commonwealth has no redress scheme, while the States have a mish-mash of schemes. The survivors group Broken Rites has recommended an Australia-wide National Redress Scheme, with money coming from a special-purpose fund in each offending institution.

To date, payouts to victims have averaged around $40,000. If this was to rise to $100,000 and there were 10,000 victims, the scheme could be worth $1 billion.

What should Humanists ask for?

What should Humanists and Secularists do? In my opinion the most important things are:

End Religious Privilege

The veneration to Churches both in attitude and in law is a major cause. This is fuelled by the many concessions given to religion in law. All such privileges must be removed, providing a really secular society.

State Law to override Church Rules

Require all Churches to declare in their internal rules, the fact that laws of the land (ie Australia) take precedence over church rules (such as Canon Law). And state explicitly that any report or suspicion of child abuse must be reported to police (with no exemptions for confessionals etc).

Freedom of Religion

This is often taken to include the right of parents to bring up children in their own faith. But most children become locked in, in two ways: firstly, if abused, they have no independent body to turn to; secondly, even as adults they remain indoctrinated and unable to make up their own minds. Hence I believe it is itself a form of child abuse, to indoctrinate them into a particular faith.

Teach them Ethics

The Primary Ethics classes have now reached 50% of students in enlightened Inner Sydney (in my observations). They teach many skills that would prevent child abuse or enable escape from it. In my own words:

How to think for yourself, and how to talk to other kids about ethics
What makes a valid authority, and if it is ever OK to question authority
Where rules come from, and what makes a good rule
Allowing growing children to gradually take over responsibility for their own welfare
Evidence, reason and critical thinking
Reasons why we should trust science.


As the Royal Commission process winds down, some statistics have been given. The cost was passing $300M when last heard. There have been 400 hearing days, in all capital cities and many regional centres. They examined 1.2 million documents and commissioned 44 research reports. They investigated 4000 institutions, including detention centres, out-of-home care, charities, sporting clubs, disability services, yoga, the justice system etc.

We hope the Final Report contains some real reforms, and does not again leave the fox in charge of the henhouse.

Ian Bryce

Ref 1: Royal Commission Interim Report:

Ref 2: Mandatory Reporting Laws:

Ref 3: Jehovah’s Witnesses:

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