When I hear the words “sexual abuse” and “church” in the same sentence, I feel a deep sense of shame. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse examined a broad range of institutions – from schools to Scouts, from the YMCA to sporting and dance clubs, from Defence training establishments to a range of out-of-home care services. It considered institutions managed by Federal, State and Territory governments as well as non-government organisations.
Child sexual abuse has occurred in a broad range of institutional contexts across Australia over many decades. However, there is no escaping the fact that more allegations of child sexual abuse were made in relation to institutions managed by religious organisations than any other type of organisation.
More than 8,000 survivors told the Commission that they were sexually abused as children in religious institutions. The abuse occurred in religious schools, orphanages and missions, churches, presbyteries and rectories, confessionals, and various other settings. The sexual abuse took many forms, including rape. It was often accompanied by physical or emotional abuse. Most victims were aged between 10 and 14 years when the abuse first started. The perpetrators included priests, religious brothers and sisters, ministers, church elders, teachers in religious schools, workers in residential institutions, youth group leaders and others.
Too often when religious leaders knew of allegations of child sexual abuse they failed to take effective action. Some ignored allegations and did not respond at all. Some treated alleged perpetrators leniently and failed to address the obvious risks they posed to children. Some concealed abuse and shielded perpetrators from accountability. Institutional reputations and concern for the perpetrators were prioritised over the needs of victims and their families.
As the Prime Minister said in his national apology in parliament last week, “Today, Australia confronts a trauma, an abomination, hiding in plain sight for far too long. Today, we confront a question too horrible to ask, let alone answer – why weren’t the children of our nation loved, nurtured and protected?
Why was their trust betrayed? Why did those who know cover it up? Why were the cries of children and parents ignored? Why was our system of justice blind to injustice? Why has it taken so long to for action to occur? Why were other things more important than this, the care of innocent children? Why didn’t we believe? Today, we dare to ask these questions, and finally acknowledge and confront the lost screams of our children.”
So many Christian churches do so much good — nourishing the soul, comforting the sick, providing services, counselling the troubled, teaching Jesus’ example, and even working to fight sexual abuse and harassment. But like in any community of faith, there is also sin — too often silenced, ignored and denied — and it has been much more common than we have wanted to believe. It has often led to failures by churches to report sexual abuse, respond appropriately to victims and change the institutional cultures that enabled the abuse in the first place.
To be fair, it’s hard for anyone, Christian or otherwise, to believe that someone they know and trust is capable of such despicable behaviour. But Christians in particular want to be known for their compassion and pursuit for justice. Ignoring, blaming, or minimising the experience of a survivor is so hypocritical. Jesus would weep.
It’s time to start believing victims and holding their assailants accountable. Our churches and their institutions must implement strong and effective systems to ensure that our children and all vulnerable people are safe.
“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matt 18:6)
This is the gospel, and we should listen.
Brian Spencer, Minister