Concerns about church institutional abuse and
mismanagement of abuse allegations have again emerged in Australia.
There have been numerous revelations in the media, not just about
what happened in religious organisations, but how it was either
covered up or badly managed.
Anglican Church was the focus of the first recent wave of public
disapproval following accusations of failing to act on allegations
of abuse by a teacher in a Queensland church school. This was all
the more interesting to the national press because the current
governor general of Australia, Peter Hollingworth, had been
Archbishop of Brisbane at the time of the allegations. His clumsy
responses, in which he appeared to minimise the seriousness of
sexual relations with children by priests, added to the outrage
about how churches were handling these matters.
next controversy surrounded the recently appointed Catholic
archbishop of Sydney, whose management of alleged and proven abuse
when in his previous diocese in Melbourne was being questioned.
Here, a central concern was whether compensation payments carried
any obligation on the victim not to discuss their allegations. This
was seized upon by the media as “hush money”.
who were subject to abuse 10, 20 or 30 years ago have come forward
to speak about feeling betrayed by churches’ responses. Revelations
have included priests being allowed to continue work following
substantiation of abuse with often little more than “counselling”,
and some perpetrators who faced criminal charges receiving more
support from the churches than did their victims.
Initiatives within the churches,
such as the Catholic Church’s report and new guidelines for
responding to allegations, Towards Understanding, have so
far failed to be convincing in establishing a more enlightened
response. This report acknowledges that the Catholic Church engaged
in minimisation, denial and cover-up of sex abuse allegations and
had given priority to its reputation, insurance and liability
concerns over those of the victims. It reported that predatory
priests were retained because the permanency of priesthood took
precedence over the need for justice. Also, criminal sexual
offences by priests were seen merely as personal moral
recent revelations have highlighted the lack of progress in
understanding or combating institutional child abuse, despite the
landmark 1977 NSW Royal Commission. This recommended sweeping
changes to institutional systems. A raft of legislation followed
and many other states undertook similar reforms. A mandatory
employment screening process – the “working with children check” –
was introduced along with legislation that prohibited employment of
sex offenders in child-related areas, and the compulsory reporting
of allegations of child abuse against staff to a special unit
within the NSW ombudsman’s office. This occurred at the same time
as the central child welfare legislation was overhauled and
clumsy responses by church leaders are all the more surprising
given that the churches in Australia have social welfare agencies
that provide some of the most respected services for abused
children and young people. It appears to be the religious rather
than the social work arms of the church organisations that are
taking the lead on handling the current crises.
clear is that the NSW and wider Australian community have much work
to do to achieve effective and compassionate systems of
notification, inter-agency co-operation, investigation and child
Eric Scott is manager, policy and
membership, Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies,
– New South Wales has a population of about
6.2 million, of whom more than 4 million live in the greater Sydney
– There were 73,000 notifications of child
abuse and neglect received in NSW in 2000 of which about 13.5 per
cent were substantiated.