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The Church’s trial though is far from over.
This religious disgrace began to attract
serious media attention in the 1980s
and gained momentum to become regular
fodder during the last decade.
Until about ten years ago Church officials
and civic leaders worldwide were treating
the problem like a case of self-harm, a
circumstance with potential to cause
unpardonable damage to the 2000 year
So Church leaders applied “discreet
management” to the situation.
Increased public pressure, again
driven by media coverage, forced more
considered and genuine responses that
centred on the needs of people who
Today it is clear that the abuse did not
simply involve a few incidents by a few
individuals in a few isolated places.
It was regular, stretched at least over
many decades, involved thousands of
priests and has been covered up time and
The issue has deep-seated and
complicated cultural roots.
Tentacles from the abuse have reached
ever y corner of the earth to a point where
it has irreparably damaged society as
The extent of the epidemic is evident in a
2002 sur vey commissioned by the United
States (US) Catholic Church. It found
America alone had about 4500 priests
accused of sexual abuse since 1950. This
is four per cent of all US Catholic priests
ser ving during the period, and almost half
were accused of multiple offences.
Some individual victims and their families
might never recover from paedophilia’s
physical and emotional trauma.
Neither may the Church.
The crisis raises many questions and two
of the more per tinent are:
“How did it happen?” and “What is to
come from it all?”
Writer, and retired Auxiliar y Bishop of
Sydney, Geoffrey Robinson says it is far
more than a single issue problem, such as
priests being required to obser ve the rule
Firstly, the painful fact of child sexual
abuse confronts us all, not just Catholics.
It is well documented that other faiths,
community organisations and predators
from all walks of life are involved.
But numerous religious obser vers in recent
times have remarked that as the Catholic
Church appears to have been the focus of
most outrage, it would be prudent for it to
assume a lead response role.
Confront the secrecy and silence that
surrounds this type of crime.
Face reality with critical self-analysis and
then take appropriate action.
Dominican priest Tom Doyle is one
observer who advocates this approach.
Fr Doyle is internationally recognised as
the most experienced canon lawyer in the
field of sexual abuse by clergy.
He warned officials at the Church’s head
office in the Vatican, Italy, of the global
issue 25 years ago and has been working
on behalf of victims ever since.
Fr Doyle says a distinction must be made.
On one hand the Church is the governing
structure of bishops, priests and so on.
On the other hand, the Church is the
people who consider themselves Catholic,
whether they regularly attend Mass or not.
Those on both sides see this controversy
as a moment of truth,
but clergy right up to
the highest level have
demonstrated that they
can only make limited
change, Fr Doyle says.
Serious analysis and
action will be driven
by the people, backed
by legal outcomes and
media repor ting.
Institutional structure needs to be
fearlessly rebuilt and this will only
happen in response to outside pressures,
Fr Doyle says.
Other observers, Richard Sipe and
Mark Coleridge, say reasons behind the
abuse are complex and weeding them
out will require Church leaders to openly
re-examine the complete question of
Mr Sipe spent 18 years as a Benedictine
monk and priest specifically trained to
deal with the mental health of Catholic
priests and has written extensively on
He says sexuality is the problem’s
linchpin and that the Church should
openly and credibly review its stance on
other closely related matters, including a
married priesthood, women’s ordination,
bir th control, abortion, homosexuality,
divorce and remarriage.
Mark Coleridge is the Archbishop of
Canberra and Goulburn and has worked in
Archbishop Coleridge believes the
combination of factors behind the
problem includes the Church’s rigid
teachings on sexuality, obligatory
clerical celibacy, inadequate personal
development training for priests, the
institution’s hierarchy of power, pride
in the Church’s achievements leading
to reputation protection, a culture
of “discretion”, sin and forgiveness
rather than crime and punishment - and
accompanying all this, loneliness and
priests’ human need for affection.
Archbishop Coleridge says an ongoing
and fitting response would have care
and compassion to victims as its
Astute obser vers see the extent of the
Church’s sexual abuse crisis as more
than a contradiction of men with influence
using their power to perpetrate such evil.
A culture of obedience within Catholicism
was also a contributing element.
It wasn’t just young victims who didn’t
know what to do about inappropriate
advances by priests.
As initial allegations began to emerge
a common immediate reaction was
disbelief, even within
Such unholy things
should not happen,
could not happen.
Then, as more became
known, it was as if
people were paralysed
by the horror.
Many simply hoped it
would go away.
It was a moral dilemma. To minimise
shame for some individuals, and the
Catholic brand as a whole, the issue
primarily became one of damage control.
And that’s what leads us to today.
Victim after victim has gradually forced
abuse from the shadows.
Priests no longer occupy unassailable
Public opinion has shifted. Accountability
must now apply to priests in similar
measure to the need for abuse survivors
to receive genuine ongoing care.
Action in the Maitland-Newcastle
Catholic diocese mirrors, and sometimes
anticipates, the Church’s global response.
Some priests have faced legal
prosecution. Some victims received
compensation. The Church is required
to abide by child protection laws.
A professional standards and child
protection unit, Zimmerman House, has
Zimmerman House includes suppor t for
sur vivors and their families, inter vention
strategies and training for all clergy,
employees and volunteers in child-related
positions throughout the diocese.
Zimmerman House manager Sean Tynan
said, “In simple terms, the problem
arose through the behaviours of some
individuals. Opportunities were presented
to them because of their significant
level of power, coupled with a lack of
super vision or adequate behavioural
“In the last few years there has been
a major change in procedures with a
criminal justice focus and a cultural shift
that is making a difference.
“No system can guarantee that abuse
will never be repeated, but the process
that is underway is certainly well down
Another diocesan initiative is Insights, a
forum to discuss the impact of abuse by
some clergy. Please visit
Chris MacIsaac, a spokesperson for the
victim support group Broken Rites, is also
positive about what is happening.
“Because so many victims have brought
complaints forward it is now impossible
for the Church, and the community as
a whole, to ignore what has happened,”
Ms MacIsaac said.
“The Church is looking at the power
structure in its ranks and it needs
to continue this in an honest and
“For changes to be effective in the long
term the Church also needs to continually
work on ways to prevent abuse and all
victims need to feel that they can come
forward, report offences and be fairly
• provides child protection training
and information sessions to parishes,
schools, social services and other
• provides specialist child protection
advice to parish leaders, Catholic
Schools Office and CatholicCare
• responds to allegations of child abuse
by persons associated with the Diocese
of Maitland-Newcastle; and
• supports people who wish to lodge a
complaint with Towards Healing.
You can contact Zimmerman House on
(02) 4940 8091
1800 234 050 toll free
(02) 4940 8087
“Accountability must now
apply to priests in similar
measure to the need for
abuse survivors to receive
genuine ongoing care”
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