Australia: child abuse inquiry finds institutions 'seriously failed' to protect children

The Royal Commission heard over 8,000 testimonies from victims of alleged abuse, involving schools, churches and sports clubs

(Photo: SBS)
(Photo: SBS)

A five-year long inquiry into sexual abuse cases in Australia released its final report, saying institutions had “seriously failed” to protect children.

Australia’s highest form of public inquiry, the Royal Commission, heard over 8,000 testimonies from victims of alleged abuse.

The accusations involved schools, churches and sports clubs and spread over decades.

Amongst over 400 recommendations, the report called on the Catholic Church to overhaul its celibacy rules.

“Tens of thousands of children have been sexually abused in many Australian institutions. We will never know the true number,” according to the report.

“It’s not a case of a few ‘rotten apples.’ Society’s major institutions have seriously failed.”

Since 2014, the Royal Commission referred over 2,500 allegations to authorities, with the final report, released on Friday, adding 189 recommendations to 220 which had already been made public. The proposals are now to be considered by legislators.

A “national tragedy” has been exposed, said prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

What did the inquiry involve?

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has the power to look into any private, public or non-government body that is involved with children.

the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse
the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse

It was contacted by over 15,000 individuals. Over 8,000 victims told their stories, many for the first time in private sessions.

The commission also received more than 1,300 written accounts and held 57 public hearings across the nation. Allegations were raised against more than 4,000 institutions.

Educators and religious ministers were the most commonly reported perpetrators, according to the report; the greatest number of which were in Catholic institutions.

What did the Commission recommend?

The commission previously recommended that Catholic clerics face criminal charges if they failed to report sexual abuse, which was disclosed to them during confession.

However, the final report on Friday urged Australian Catholic bishops to petition the Vatican to amend a canon law, to allow priests to report such confessions.

It also said that the Catholic Church should consider making celibacy voluntary for priests, as while it was “not a direct cause of child sexual abuse,” it had “contributed to the occurrence of child sexual abuse, especially when combined with other risk factors.”

Amongst other major findings, the inquiry recommended:

  • A system of preventative training for children in schools and early childhood centres
  • A nationally implemented strategy to prevent child sex abuse
  • A national office for child safety, overseen by a government minister
  • Making it mandatory for more occupations, such as early childhood workers, religious ministers and registered psychologists, to report abuse

Many leaders of institutions admitted to their failures and apologized to victims on behalf of their groups.

The president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Denis Hart, on Friday, offered an “unconditional” apology.

“This is a shameful past, in which a prevailing culture of secrecy and self-protection led to unnecessary suffering for many victims and their families,” he said.

He, however, rejected the rules on confession.

“The seal of the confessional, or the relationship with God that’s carried through the priest and with the person, is inviolable,” he said.

On the call for voluntary celibacy, Hart said it was up to the Vatican to make that decision.

Sydney’s Catholic Archbishop Antony Fisher told reports that child sexual abuse was “an issue for everyone, celibate or not,” adding that incidents also took place in institutions with non-celibate clergy.

Australia’s most senior Anglican figure, Melbourne Archbishop Philip Freier, apologized for “our failures and by the shameful way we sometimes actively worked against and discouraged those who came to us and reported abuse.”

Letters from survivors

(Photo: Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse)
(Photo: Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse)
(Photo: Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse)
(Photo: Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse)
(Photo: Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse)
(Photo: Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse)
(Photo: Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse)
(Photo: Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse)
(Photo: Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse)
(Photo: Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse)

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