(This editorial first appeared in the June issue of the Anglican Journal.)
In March, Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse released its initial report on how Australian institutions—including churches, schools, sports clubs and government organizations—have responded to allegations of child sexual abuse.
The groundbreaking report revealed that children were allegedly sexually abused in more than 4,000 Australian institutions, including the Catholic and Anglican churches.
From 1980 to 2015, about 4,500 allegations of child abuse involving 1,880 alleged offenders were brought to the attention of authorities in the Australian Catholic church. In that same period, more than 1,100 complaints of child sexual abuse were made in the Anglican Church of Australia. The alleged abuses involved 285 laypeople and 247 clergy from 22 of the church’s 23 dioceses.
Since the numbers do not include unreported cases, the true magnitude of the abuse remains unknown. However, the inquiry clearly established the lasting and multi-generational impact of childhood sexual abuse and the great lengths institutions went to protect predators. The commission interviewed more than 1,200 witnesses in public hearings and held 6,500 private sessions with survivors and witnesses, including those in nursing homes and hospitals.
The impact of the commission’s work is incalculable and stretches far beyond Australia. Sexual violence against children remains a global reality. The commission’s report proves that governments and institutions continue to profoundly fail children.
One would think that after the highly-publicized sex abuse scandals involving pedophile priests in Catholic churches in the U.S., Canada and Ireland, things would be different.
But as Gail Furness, the senior counsel who assisted the commission noted, the accounts they heard from victims were “depressingly familiar.” Children’s complaints were disregarded by church authorities, she said. “Documents were not kept or they were destroyed. Secrecy prevailed as did cover ups.” Perpetrators were moved, with parishes and communities to which they were reassigned not knowing about their sordid, criminal past.
A culture that minimizes the crimes of abusers and belittles victims and survivors allowed the abuse to happen in churches, places that are meant to be sanctuaries, said Australian diocese of Newcastle Bishop Greg Thompson. Conflicts of interests around friendships were also a factor, Thompson told a public hearing of the commission in November. “People refuse to accept that their loved priest has been an offender.”
Shortly after he became bishop, Thompson recalled that he received pressure from influential, long-time parishioners to reverse decisions made by the diocese’s professional standards board to defrock four priests over child abuse allegations. “There are those who feel that this has brought shame to the church. That it’s brought shame on people they revered,” he said. Instead of caving, Thompson established parish recovery teams to support the victims and to work with communities in addressing past abuses. He issued a historic letter of apology to victims. He also went public with allegations that he himself had been sexually molested by a priest and a bishop when he was 19.
Thompson paid a huge price for his openness and advocacy to confront what he described as his diocese’s culture of silence and secrecy. He resigned, effective May, citing the toll it had exacted on his health and his family’s well-being. He had been publicly shamed and shunned even by those who had once received Holy Communion from him, he said. He and his staff also received an “avalanche” of vicious emails and have had their cars vandalized.
Surely, such appalling behaviour has no place in the church. The sad reality, however, is that as long as there are those who feel that it is their duty to protect the church’s reputation rather than to come to the aid and comfort of God’s most vulnerable, children will continue to be at risk.
In his open letter of apology to victims, Thompson urged survivors and witnesses to come forward to the police, to the commission and to the diocese. He did so by quoting the famous words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who actively resisted Nazism: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”