Volume 16: Religious institutions

This volume examines what was learned about institutional responses to child sexual abuse in religious institutions. It discusses the nature and extent of child sexual abuse in religious institutions, the impacts of this abuse, and survivors’ experiences of disclosing it. The volume examines the nature and adequacy of institutional responses to child sexual abuse in religious institutions, and draws out common factors contributing to the abuse and common failings in institutional responses. It makes recommendations to prevent child sexual abuse from occurring in religious institutions and, where it does occur, to help ensure effective responses.


Summary

This volume discusses what the Royal Commission learned during the five-year inquiry about institutional responses to child sexual abuse in religious institutions. It outlines the nature and extent of the abuse, its impacts, and survivors’ experiences of disclosing it. It examines common failures in institutional responses, and draws out factors that may have contributed to the occurrence of abuse and to inadequate responses. It makes recommendations to prevent child sexual abuse from occurring in religious institutions and, where it does occur, to ensure that responses are appropriate and effective.

Children and their wellbeing, safety and protection have been at the centre of the inquiry. The Terms of Reference recognise that all children deserve a safe and happy childhood and that Australia has international obligations to protect children from sexual and other forms of abuse.

The Royal Commission has examined a broad range of institutions – from schools to Scouts, from the YMCA to sporting and dance clubs, from Defence training establishments to a range of out-of-home care services. It has considered institutions managed by federal, state and territory governments as well as non-government organisations. It is clear that child sexual abuse has occurred in a broad range of institutional contexts across Australia, and over many decades. However, the Royal Commission heard more allegations of child sexual abuse in relation to institutions managed by religious organisations than any other management type.

More than 4,000 survivors told the Royal Commission in private sessions that they were sexually abused as children in religious institutions. The abuse occurred in religious schools, orphanages and missions, churches, presbyteries and rectories, confessionals, and various other settings. In private sessions, the Royal Commission heard about child sexual abuse occurring in 1,691 different religious institutions. The sexual abuse took many forms, including rape. It was often accompanied by physical or emotional abuse. Most victims were aged between 10 and 14 years when the abuse first started. The Royal Commission heard about perpetrators including priests, religious brothers and sisters, ministers, church elders, teachers in religious schools, workers in residential institutions, youth group leaders and others.

The Royal Commission conducted 30 case studies on religious institutions. They revealed that many religious leaders knew of allegations of child sexual abuse yet failed to take effective action. Some ignored allegations and did not respond at all. Some treated alleged perpetrators leniently and failed to address the obvious risks they posed to children. Some concealed abuse and shielded perpetrators from accountability. Institutional reputations and individual perpetrators were prioritised over the needs of victims and their families.

Religious leaders and institutions across Australia have acknowledged that children suffered sexual abuse while in their care. Many have also accepted that their responses to this abuse were inadequate. These failures are not confined to religious institutions. However, the failures of religious institutions are particularly troubling because these institutions have played, and continue to play, an integral and unique role in the lives of many children. They have also been key providers of education, health and social welfare services to children in Australia for many years. They have been among the most respected institutions in our society. The perpetrators of child sexual abuse in religious institutions were, in many cases, people that children and parents trusted the most and suspected the least.

Many people who experience child sexual abuse have the course of their lives altered forever. Many of the survivors the Royal Commission heard from continue to experience the ongoing impacts. For some, these impacts have been profound. They include a devastating loss of religious faith and loss of trust in the religious organisation that was once a fundamental part of their life. The impacts have rippled out to affect their parents, siblings, partners, children and, in some cases, entire communities. Some victims have not survived the abuse, having since taken their own lives.

It would be a mistake to regard this child sexual abuse as historical; as something we no longer need to be concerned about. While much of the abuse heard about in religious institutions occurred before 1990, long delays in victims disclosing abuse mean that an accurate contemporary understanding of the problem is not possible. Some of the abuse the Royal Commission heard about was recent. More than 200 survivors told us they had experienced child sexual abuse in a religious institution since 1990. There is no way of knowing how many others may have had similar experiences.

However, it would also be wrong to say that nothing has changed. In some religious institutions there has been progress during the past two decades. Some of the religious institutions examined in the case studies told us about their child protection reforms. Others remained reluctant to accept the need for significant internal changes.

The Royal Commission has developed a comprehensive set of recommendations aimed at making religious institutions safer for children. Many of the recommendations apply to all religious institutions in Australia. Some are specific to particular religious institutions. In some cases, the recommendations are also relevant to the international leadership of religious organisations.

The recommendations focus on factors that were identified as contributing to the occurrence of child sexual abuse in religious institutions and to inadequate institutional responses. Some relate to governance, internal culture and underlying theological and scriptural beliefs and practices. The Royal Commission has examined these matters to the extent that they have affected – and may continue to affect – the vulnerability of children to abuse, and the likelihood of religious institutions responding poorly when abuse occurs. Religious leaders in Australia have recognised the importance of the Royal Commission's role in providing recommendations on such matters.

While positive reforms are underway in some religious institutions, there is still much progress to be made before the community can be confident that all religious institutions in Australia are as safe as possible for children.



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