The Ferns Report and the Anglican research

The results of two major moves with regard to clergy abuse have been made public in recent weeks.  Firstly, the Irish report into abuse in the Catholic Church in Ireland, and secondly the Anglican (Australia) report on clergy abuse within that denomination here.  However, the two approaches are so diametrically different that it is almost impossible to treat them as part of the same process. 

The Irish report was a government inquiry, calling for submissions from any interested party; the Australian one was a private report instigated and sponsored by the denomination, and totally unannounced until its results were published.  The Irish one investigated all cases of abuse reported to them; the Australian one simply gathered statistics about the cases.  The Irish inquiry investigated corruption links between the church and secular bodies; the Australian one held no such brief at all.  The Irish report investigated a national church with links to the Pope and around the world; the Australian one investigated a church where each diocese is autonomous and chose whether or not to provide any information at all.

However, there is one major similarity – that neither of the inquiries has the power to enforce changes that will actually protect victims.  The Irish inquiry has specifically avoided making recommendations for laying charges against any perpetrators named by witnesses (although many are not named in the report, after the Christian Brothers successfully sued to withhold the names of all its accused members); the Anglican report has no power to create change at all.  Indeed, the governing body of the Anglican Church in Australia has no power to enforce change on any diocese – they may make policy recommendations, but each diocese has autonomy and can either reject or implement the recommendations in its own ordinance-making.

This shift towards investigation (at whatever level) of clergy sexual abuse  is occurring worldwide, albeit much slower in countries where women have fewer rights or where the church is more powerful.  It is, however, a very recent phenomenon.  Twenty-five years ago, an internal report to the Catholic Church in America about clergy sexual abuse told them they were sitting on a time bomb.  They did nothing, except to sack and blackball the priest who compiled the report.  Twelve years ago, clergy abuse victims were beginning to use the internet to connect with each other, share information and  provide support.  The most successful networks were anonymous back then, and the two recurring themes among members of those networks were “I couldn’t tell anyone that knows me” and “I can’t believe I’m not alone any more”.

In the last ten years, victims have come a long way.  They are, in general, less afraid of being disbelieved or ridiculed if they disclose what happened to them.  Society, too, has learnt to acknowledge that clergy sexual abuse is a real and substantial problem.  Churches, unfortunately, have had to be dragged kicking and screaming along the same ground.  Every major denomination has a policy in force for dealing with complaints.  Yet the creation of these policies was only in response to growing publicity of the problem in the early to mid-1990s, and their implementation still leaves a lot to be desired.  Church hierarchy still excuse clergy sexual abusers with words like “he’s sexually/socially immature” (then is he really fit to minister to others?), “we didn’t understand the problem back then” (funny, there were laws about child rape – society got it; what’s there to not understand?), “he was over-stressed” (ministry is a stressful job; if that’s the way he breaks under pressure, is he a good choice for this job?) or “she came onto him and he just couldn’t help it” (if he’s really got so little moral fibre, should he be preaching morals to others?).  And the Catholic League, a Catholic civil liberties organisation, labels a report naming over 800 abusers and 36,000 victims “hysteria”![1]

And in this regard, it’s clear that churches (both hierarchy and lay members) still lag behind the general population in appreciating how heinous a crime this is – convicted clergy continue to minister, victims continue to be sidelined, ignored or intimidated into silence, psychiatric assessments of victims (for treatment) and perpetrators (for counselling) are disregarded, and parishes are left to heal on their own after discovering their minister was an abuser.  Moreover, victims who make their abuse public while still in the parish where it occurred are usually frozen out by the congregation who is their social and spiritual network, because it’s easier to blame the messenger than to confront the implications for their own faith.

And more unfortunately still, the church as a whole still actively resists any legislation they see as encroachment on their ability to make internal decisions.  So, for instance, if the government were to legislate that all clergy convicted of a sexual offence or crime of violence were prohibited from ministry (or, as they should be, defrocked), every denomination would probably immediately scream about interference in their right to decide who should be in ministry and who shouldn’t.  Yet where the church fails to make such decisions, who but the government can?

There are three ways church policies can change – as a result of internal decisions, enforced change in response to government legislation, or through lobbying pressure from victims and interested media.  Up till now, the government has interfered little, and churches have not changed on their own initiative.  These inquiries, and others like them, are happening because of greater publicity of the issue and victims less afraid to tell of their abuse and lobby for change. 

2002 was the landmark year for the issue in America – consequent on a specific legal case, the Boston Globe filed a motion requesting church documents relating to abuse cover-up be made public.  11,000 pages of documents and a Pulitzer Prize for the Globe later, it was hard for the church to deny their complicity over decades, and easier for victims to realise they were not alone.

The Irish inquiry may well have finally achieved the same thing in Ireland.  Australia has yet to have its own epiphany, although the NSW Royal Commission (Paedophile Inquiry) of 1996 touched briefly on paedophilia in churches.  Yet victims still struggle to believe anyone wants to know.  Only the other day, I received an email from a victim who said, in part, “I couldn’t stand for anyone to find out, such as my mother or my grandmother.  But at the same time I really feel like I need to get it out.” 

It would be wonderful to see churches holding the high moral ground, acting in the interests of justice and victim protection first, unhesitatingly supporting victims, and ceasing to make excuses for their failings.  But all the indications are that that dream is still a long way off becoming reality.

Anglican Report:

Irish Report:



[1] Accessed 24/6/09.



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