Thursday, November 14, 2013

Report of Australian Commission on Child Abuse in Religious Organizations Unsparing in Criticism of Catholic Church

The committee established by the parliament of Victoria in Australia to conduct an inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other non-governmental organizations has just presented its report to parliament. The report is entitled A Betrayal of Trust, and is online at the parliamentary website (part one is here, part two here, and an executive summary here; all are pdf files). As David Marr reports for The Guardian, the report is "unsparing" in its criticism of the Catholic church. 

The report notes that it focuses on the Catholic church because the submissions it received from victims of abuse in Victoria when parliament established the inquiry were preponderantly from people who had experienced abuse by Catholic religious authority figures. A major theme of abuse survivors was the betrayal of trust by religious organizations they had previously trusted--as the report notes, "particularly the Catholic Church." 

That betrayal of trust had eroded their sense of self-worth throughout their lives, survivors reported, resulting in mental health struggles, difficulty establishing healthy relationships, addiction issues, problems in education and employment, and so forth. Regarding religious groups and how their betrayal of victims' trust affected their lives, the report's executive summary states,

This feeling resulted from the inconsistent approaches by organisations to victims versus offenders—that is, giving inadequate support to victims, while providing pastoral, legal and financial support to offenders. They spoke of unfulfilled promises by leaders in the organisation and the trivializing of their experiences.

About the response of the Catholic church, in particular, the report states,  

In regard to the Catholic Church specifically, the Committee found that rather than being instrumental in exposing the criminal abuse of children and the extent of the problem, senior leaders of the Church: 
• trivialised the problem 
• contributed to abuse not being disclosed or not being responded to at all prior to the 1990s 
• ensured that the Victorian community remained uninformed of the abuse 
• ensured that perpetrators were not held accountable, with the tragic result being that children continued to be abused by some religious personnel when it could have been avoided. 
Analysis of the Catholic Church’s past handling of this problem shows that as an organisation it had many of the internal features of an organisation at high risk of its personnel perpetrating criminal child abuse. These features include its: 
• trusted role in caring for children 
• culture and power 
• complex hierarchy and structure 
• teachings and beliefs 
• processes for responding to allegations—including the failure to report abuse to the police 
• response to alleged offenders—including the relocation and movement of offenders and failure to suspend them from their duties.

The report finds that few of the religious organizations it studied have simple, transparent, and easily accessible procedures for responding to an allegation of criminal child abuse. Abuse survivors report that such procedures as churches have established are seriously defective for the following reasons: 

• They are not truly independent of the organisations. 
• They contain no existing recognition of or support for secondary victims of criminal child abuse. 
• Their approach to financial compensation often does not provide a clear explanation of the basis on which an organisation makes a financial payment, how the amount awarded is determined and obligations regarding confidentiality. 
• They rarely encourage participants in the process to seek independent legal advice before reaching an agreement that might affect their subsequent legal rights. 
• They tend to provide generic apologies that do not focus on the specific circumstances of the individual and the role played by both the perpetrator and the organisation in regard to the damage suffered by the victim. 
• Only some provide counselling support, and some of those that do tend to provide inadequate counselling for a number of reasons, including limited sessions offered, counselling services not tailored to individual needs or counseling services operated internally by the organisation responsible for the abuse. 
• Some demonstrated a reluctance to implement effective disciplinary processes for offenders in their organisation, such as suspending them from their duties, removing their title or their membership with the organisation.

The report recommends a far-reaching expansion of legal protections for victims of childhood sexual abuse, and increased governmental scrutiny of tax-exempt religious organizations as they deal with reports of child abuse by their employees and representatives. As committee member Andrea Coote told the Legislative Council of parliament when the report was presented (I'm citing Marr in The Guardian here), such scrutiny is necessary in the case of the Catholic church because,

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.

As Heather Ewart notes for Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Coote also stated that Catholic officials have developed a "sliding morality" in their handling of reports of child abuse by priests and religious authority figures. That sliding morality operates by compartmentalizing the issues in order to minimize the obvious moral conflicts the institution faces when it deals transparently with issues of abuse of children by priests. It does so by placing the interests of the abuser and of the institution above the needs of those who have been abused.

This report is one more piece of evidence that the problem of abuse of children, and the problem of the spectacular mishandling of reports of such abuse, is a worldwide problem in the Catholic church, for reasons that never seem to vary from the U.S. to Ireland to Belgium to Australia. While preaching and teaching a moral system that is about love, healing, and justice, church leaders persistently exhibit astonishingly callous responses to those abused by Catholic authority figures when they're young. Church leaders persistently put the reputation of the church and its assets ahead of love, justice, and healing for victims.

And as the Australian report underscores, this leaves those seeking justice and healing with only one option: to turn to the criminal justice system and not the church as they report their abuse. And to demand that criminal behavior on the part of religious leaders be treated as criminal behavior--as it would be treated within any other organization, if that organization's leaders failed to report credible allegations of the sexual abuse of minors and protected its representatives who engaged in such abuse . . . . 

The photo is by Julian Smith of AAP and is at this Guardian article

No comments: