Accusations of cover-ups and blame-shifting by the Catholic Church in its handling of allegations of child sexual abuse by priests have been front-page news in Australia. Newspaper headlines such as “Senior Catholic Priests in Child Sex Cover-Up Inquiry” point to claims that the Church has attempted to hide possible sex abuse within its walls rather than reporting it to the police.
Whether these cases will stand up is yet to be proved, but investigators in the states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria are currently searching for evidence that in many instances priests were merely moved on. This is not unique to Australia. There have been far-reaching repercussions from court cases involving cover-ups in Ireland, Germany and America.
Two dedicated investigations by the NSW police, Strike Force Lantle and Strike Force Glenroe, are currently looking into alleged cover-ups involving three senior churchmen, including a bishop and an archbishop.
An MP has renewed calls for a royal commission. Last April in Victoria, following revelations of 40 suicides of abuse victims by two priests, the state government initiated a parliamentary inquiry into the failure of the Catholic Church to protect children from sexual abuse.
All members of the hierarchy vehemently deny the allegations. But even if subsequent court hearings come to nothing, they are re-focusing attention on the many priests already jailed for paedophilia.
There are no official figures, but since 1993 the charity Broken Rites alone has supported 150 cases which ended in prosecutions and are currently aiding another eight court cases. They have also handled 15 cases that ended without convictions and 128 out-of-court settlements. The abuse was so extensive that Pope Benedict, when visiting Sydney in 2008 on World Youth Day, made a public apology to victims in Australia.
Whether mandatory celibacy has contributed to abuse is now much debated. One lawyer remarked: “Total denial of sexuality can have terrible repercussions. Pent-up sexual tensions sometimes find an outlet with the easiest available target – sadly this is often children.”
The fact that celibacy is a matter of Church discipline, not part of Church doctrine, has been emphasised in the recent revelations of 49-year-old Fr Kevin Lee of Sydney, who has been married to a woman in the Philippines for a year.
While in Australia I made inquiries into how all this will adversely affect congregations. The answer is that Mass attendance is now similar to that in Dublin, with less than one in five Catholics kneeling in pews each Sunday. But with 5.5 million Catholics – that is, 25.3 per cent of the population – the Catholic Church, despite the growth of Pentecostal churches, is Australia’s largest religion.
Along with diminishing churchgoers, the drop in the number of Australian-born priests continues. In the 2012 directory of Catholic priests in Australia once again the most common name is Vietnamese. There are 40 priests called Nguyen.
But one positive trend is the vibrancy of Australia’s Catholic schools – mostly run by lay teachers. With 650,000 students and around 21 per cent of all secondary school enrolments, they rank second after government schools. As non-Catholic admissions are kept at around seven per cent, parish priests are sometimes asked by Catholic parents who never got around to having their babies baptised to perform late baptisms on children aged between four and 11. These christenings are, alas, for expediency, not for faith.