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Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

Then and Now

Before 2012

Sexual abuse of children and young adolescents by Catholic priests has been documented since at least the medieval era, when it was well known by the public and other clergy to be commonplace. Bishops were not as preoccupied with secrecy as they are today, so it was openly discussed. At the third Lateran council of 1138 CE, it was decided that clerics who engaged in pederasty or sodomy were to be dismissed from the clerical state or else confined to monasteries to do penance, but in practice, perpetrators were rarely punished. It was almost regarded as part of the job if the priest was so inclined, and disciplinary legislation didn’t deter offenders. In some monasteries, monks’ “lapses” with boys were so commonplace they were endemic.

A prevailing sense of entitlement formed; as clergy vowed chastity and celibacy, they felt their sacrifice of denial could be rewarded by the powerless.  Just as a vow of poverty demanded gold plated tea cups in some monasteries.

The struggle for absolute dominance between State and the Catholic Church is evident throughout the past 1400 years.   The Church has also become the richest institution in the history of the western world. 

In the 11th century Pope Gregory VII excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, to affirm the primacy of papal authority in appointing clergy and the new canon law governing the election of the pope by the College of Cardinals.  The threat of excommunication was generally applied to all the reigning monarchs’ subjects.  This illustrates the supremacy of the power of the Church in western civilisation.  

Dante commits Pope Nicholas III to the Inferno for his simony – selling offices.

Girolamo Savonarola was a complex and conflicted fiery Florentine Friar who preached against art as a contributing factor to the spread of vice and spiritual decay – particularly overt same sex activity prevalent in Enrique’s court in Sergovia. His prophetic fire and brimstone preaching exhorted the masses to reject the secular materialism and corruption ot Rodrigo Borgia’s Papacy.

His attacks on the dissolute Papacy of Alexander VI found many adherents throughout Europe, including Queen Isabella from 1492.  The Pope tried to appease him by offering to make him a Cardinal – rejected. 

With the death of Lorenzo de’Medici in 1496, Florence was hit by drought and starvation, which Savonarola attributed to the sybaritic ways of the Church.  He instituted the Bonfires of the Vanities, where all were bring and burn all objects that represented human vices and luxuries – rich clothing, mirrors, playing cards, paintings and books – representing the sensuality of the Italian Renaissance.

Pope Alexander initially ignored him, then ex-communicated him but finally called on the Church to “this little worm had to be put to death”.

Despite Savonarola’s appeals to various crowns of Europe to convene a council to overthrow an openly corrupt Papacy, it was Savonarola who faced an Inquisition, He was tortured, confessed that” his sermons were acts of pride for personal glory” and having given the Church what it needed, was hanged and his body burned.  Even his supporters abandoned him as Florentines threw gun powder on the fire to make the blaze hotter.  Dissenters seldom prosper.

Chaucer condemns the Church in no uncertain terms for rife – wide spread corruption.  Chaucer’s main contempt is reserved for The Pardoner, perhaps the most depraved and reviled of the Pilgrims. A lay preacher who sells indulgences and fake relics to make money – a hypocrite.  His Tale and actions are a complete negation of all Christian virtues: honesty, humility, poverty, chastity, love of fellow men.  Chaucer’s disillusionment is further illustrated by the fact, in real life, he was fined for having beat a Friar.

Luther, a fully trained Priest, also objected to the venal fetishes of the Church. His main tenant was that man can justifiably seek his own communion with God through faith and did not need the influence of priests.  Luther won his arguments with the masses because he addressed them in the vernacular while the Church maintained the false gravity of Latin.

One of the reasons Martin Luther rejected mandatory celibacy was because he saw widespread evidence that church clerics of all ranks commonly violated the rules with women, other men, and young boys.

Henry the Eighth had more personal reasons to defy the power of Rome.  He simply confiscated all the Churches vast wealth and appointed himself as the head of a new national Church just so he could divorce Catherine and marry Ann Boleyn...  He simply hung, drew and quartered any priests or believers who failed to comply.  His daughter “Bloody Mary” reciprocated by killing Protestants who failed to come back to her Catholic faith.  Elizbeth I had a more tolerant approach of allowing religious freedom; “We will not make windows of men’s souls”.  Her reign ushered in a “Golden Age” of good governance, tolerance and husbandry.

Second sack of Rome

Perhaps the lowest moment in Rome's history came in 1527 CE, when Pope Clement VII, pursuant to an unsuccessful attempt to limit the power of Charles V (who soon became Holy Roman Emperor), was invaded by his troops, and those troops, after defeating the pope's forces, mercilessly sacked Rome in months of unbridled horror.

The doors of churches and convenes, of palaces, monasteries and workshops were smashed open and the contents hurled into the streets. Tombs were broken open, including that of Julius II, and the corpses stripped of jewels and vestments. ...

"Men were tortured to reveal the hiding-places of their possessions or to pay ransoms for the sparing of their lives, one merchant being tied to a tree and having a fingernail wrenched out each day because he could not pay the money demanded.

Many were suspended for hours by the arms [wrote Francesco Guicciardini's brother, Luigi]; many were cruelly bound by the genitals; many were suspended by the feet high above the road or over the river, while their tormentors threatened to cut the cord. Some were half buried in the cellars; others were nailed up in casks or villainously beaten and wounded; not a few were branded all over their persons with red-hot irons. Some were tortured by extreme thirst, others by insupportable noise and many were cruelly tortured by having their teeth brutally drawn. Others again were forced to eat their own ears, or nose, or their roasted testicles and yet more were subjected to strange, unheard-of martyrdoms that move me too much even to think of, much less describe. ... The Biography of a City by Christopher Hibbert. 

"Those who professed to support the imperial cause suffered with the rest, and none was safe from capture and demands for ransom. ...  Over two thousand people, more than half of them women, who had been given refuge in the Palazzo dei SS. Apostoli, were made to pay ransom. Most officers had little authority over their men and stood by helpless when they did not condone, encourage or even participate in the atrocities: one German commander boasted his intention of eviscerating the Pope once he had laid his hands on him.

"Some priests were, indeed, eviscerated. Others were stripped naked and forced to utter blasphemies on pain of death or to take part in profane travesties of the Mass. One priest was murdered by Lutherans when he refused to administer Holy Communion to an ass. Cardinal Cajetan was dragged through the streets in chains, insulted and tortured; Cardinal Ponzetti, who was over eighty years old, shared his sufferings and, having parted with 20,000 ducats, died from the injuries inflicted upon him. Nuns, like other women, were violated, sold in the streets at auction and used as counters in games of chance. Mothers and fathers were forced to watch and even to assist at the multiple rape of their daughters. Convents became brothels into which women of the upper classes were dragged and stripped. 'Marchionesses, countesses and baronesses,' wrote the Sieur de Brantôme, 'served the unruly troops, and for long afterwards the patrician women of the city were known as "the relics of the Sack of Rome".

After Rome fell to the barbarians in 476 CE, it went from a city of more than a million people to only a few hundred thousand -- still large by the standards of the middle ages but nowhere near its former glory -- and at its lowest point, as few as 20,000 people. Through this period, Rome was sustained because it was the seat of the pope, and it had all the Church's landholdings and power to collect offerings and sell offices. Places like Florence, Venice and Milan became the important population and economic centers on the Italian peninsula during these centuries. It wasn't until Italy was united as a single country under Vittorio Emmanuel in the 1860s with Rome as its capital that Rome again grew to become one of Europe's largest cities.

"Rome was ... at the mercy of the [victorious] imperialist troops. Gian d'Urbina, the cruel and arrogant commander of the Spanish infantry, infuriated by a pike wound in the face inflicted by a Swiss Guard, rampaged through the Borgo, followed by his men, killing everyone they came across. 'All were cut to pieces, even if unarmed,' wrote an eyewitness, 'even in those places that Attila and Genseric, although the most cruel of men, had in former times treated with religious respect.' The Hospital of S. Spirito was broken into, and nearly all those who were cared for there were slaughtered or thrown into the Tiber alive. The orphans of the Pieta were also killed. Convicts from the prisons were set free to join in the massacre, mutilation and pillage. Sack of Rome, by Francisco Javier Amérigo Aparicio, 1884.

Napoleon had a more nuanced relationship with Rome.  The French Revolution had broken the tyranny of the Church by disestablishing it. As the first Estate, the Church too, had lost touch with the masses.  The disparity of pay between the privileged upper clergy and the lower parish priests was enormous, resulting in the hierarchy aligning with the nobility.  Rabid revolutionaries ransacked Churches and all aristocratic privilege.

Napoleon soon recognised the value of the Church controlling the masses and re-established it with his Concordat in 1801.  His other great contribution was to shut down the 400 year barbaric abuse of power of the Spanish Inquisition when he invaded Spain in 1804, appointing his brother to the throne. 

Napoleon and Pope Pius VII were the two most powerful men of their age, the one the would-be master of the world, the other the Vicar of Heaven, locked in ferocious combat.  In 1809, Pius had been invited to Paris for Napoleon’s coronation, but Napoleon snatched the crown and crowned himself, as the Pope sat by and watched.  Despite the discourtesy the two men admired and liked each other - for a time. Soon enough they fell out, embroiled in a bitter quarrel over the respective powers of the kingdoms of Christ and Caesar. In, 1812 Napoleon abducted the Pope and under extremely harsh conditions had him brought to Fontainebleau to demonstrate his supremacy.   The Pontiff gazed up at his physician and murmured of Napoleon, ''May God forgive him. I already have.''  He later cautioned Napoleon by telling him that the Church was much greater than its officials and that the power would prevail through its parishioners.

In 1815, with the banishment of Napoleon, the Church re-established the central authority of the Pope (ultramontanism) through a Holy Alliance with the Holy Roman Empire.

The resurgence of the Catholic Church came after the restoration and the “turning back of the clock” during the 19th Century.  During the period from 1850, Clericalism joined other “isms” in a competition of ideologies.

Though Lord Acton had papal infallibility and the absolute powers of monarchs in mind when writing to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, his warnings apply to all people invested with great power, including judges:  ….Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely……   There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it."  He also maintained that people in high office generally failed their institutions.

In 1906, another canon law was issued that all criminal investigations of Catholic priests should be conducted by the Church.

It was only various other inquiries, in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, that finally put an end to clerical immunity and impunity.

The Catholic Church is known for circling the wagons when there is a crisis, defending the institution at all costs, and even Pope Francis, after all, pointedly attended the funeral of the notorious Cardinal Law, whose cover-up of the depredations of the Catholic clergy in Boston was the subject of the Oscar-winning film Spotlight.

Defending the bishop of Osono in Chile, what nobody could have predicted was one word that Francis did indeed utter on the last day of his trip to Chile. Asked about Barros, Francis lost his temper and, with uncharacteristic vehemence, stated that there was not a shred of evidence against the bishop of Osorno and that all the accusations against him were nothing more than “calumnia,” slander.

Reports of the sexual abuse

Cardinal Pell’s initial responses to allegations of sexual abuse were belligerent in defence of the Church and denied any attempt at cover-ups.  Pell said in 2012: “We are not interested in denying the extent of misdoing in the Catholic Church. We object to it being exaggerated; we object to being described as the only cab on the rank.” He would explain to Australia’s royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse: “It was a sad story and of not much interest to me.”

 He said it was the “fear of scandal” that led to treatment of victims during the 1970s and '80s.  There had been a ''persistent press campaign'' and ''general smears that we are covering up and moving people around''.  Cardinal George Pell has accused the Senate of waging an “extraordinary and unjust” attack against him and interfering with due process and claimed that it wasn’t only the Catholics – a rather juvenile defence.  But he was right, all religious institutions had questions to answer the more prestigious, the more culpable.  His lame analogy of a trucking company not being responsible for the actions of its drivers did his cause no good.

Archbishop Hart realised such a bellicose response could turn out disastrous so as President of the Australian Bishops Conference they set up Truth, Justice and Healing Council headed by a lay person,  Francis Sullivan.

Its purpose was to identify past failure, promote lasting healing and put in place systems to ensure such abuse wouldn’t happen again.  This would require a massive paradigm shift from the hierarchy.  Archbishop Hart acknowledged and regretted having earlier told a victim to “Go to Hell, bitch” at 1:30 in the morning.

According to Martin McKenzie Murray, the institutional abuse commission had been five years in the making, and, as the head of the Catholic Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council, the body formed to coordinate the church’s response to the commission, Francis Sullivan was there for all of it.

The church didn’t appoint a sycophant. Sullivan is a man who speaks in good faith about his church’s abuses, and who has become one of its most insistent and credible critics. He is a man who attended each hearing involving the Catholic Church, and who has by now spent hundreds of hours with church victims – mostly listening, he says. A devout Catholic, with a master’s in theology, Sullivan has never been clergy. The bulk of his professional history had been in senior administration – as secretary general of the Australian Medical Association, and before that as the head of Catholic Health Australia.  The Saturday Paper

Initial estimates were that there might 100 paedophiles in the church but eventually there were 4445 alleged complaints made against 2000 perpetrators with as high as 40% in the Order of St John of God.  The Catholic Church had by far the largest numbers, though all religious denominations have been implicated, including many of Australia’s most prestigious private schools.  Most administrators relied on the lame excuse that they didn’t know that any suspicion, by mandate, had to be reported to the police.  This was first raised in 1988 and by 1997 several non-government Principals had been stood down for dubious cases of non-notification.  One law for the rich, another for the rest of us.

The Reaction

Glen Tattersall, a Melbourne priest and member of the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy maintains that the Commission and liberals like Sullivan are using the child abuse allegations to cynically push a liberal agenda for self - serving purposes to wreck the church.  His denialism comes through in complaining about how the church has been treated, calling it a set up.  When asked whether he felt any shame about the abuse that took place, Tattersall reacted, “Why should we be ashamed of something we didn’t do?”

Tattersall blames the libertarians, the ones advocating same sex marriage.  “If there is a relationship between a priest and a boy in his late teens, how can it be sexual abuse when a person is 16 or 17 and then it’s a wonderful relationship when you’re 19? I mean it’s ridiculous.”

Elizabeth Proust supports Sullivan asking his critics, where were they and what were they doing while the abuse went on? 

Jesuit lawyer, priest and academic, Frank Brennan claims the Church fails to understand the enormous havoc the revelations have been to the moral authority of Church.  “It will take generations, if at all before there is any recovery”.

Geraldine Doogue, broadcaster and prominent Catholic, despairs about the catastrophe.  She believes Sullivan is an honourable man, but he should tell a broader story about how the Catholic Church is also the greatest provider of social welfare outside the government.

Sullivan’s achievements include ending the Ellis Defence, where the church sought to evade responsibility by the specious ruse of claiming not to be “legal entity”.  He also established a new national audit body, to audit Dioceses, Parishes and religious orders and name and shame those who didn’t meet the highest standards of child protection. 

At a recent conference in Rome of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Sullivan was scathing of the organisers for not inviting any victims.  “We can’t afford to let that keep happening… the fact that among the speakers, there aren’t any survivors sends a very powerful message; that we still haven’t got it”.

De Marco, a victim, is sceptical of any reform; “They are disconnected from reality. How can church leaders not have been listening for four years or seeking his own understanding?”

Anthony Fisher, as Bishop of Parramatta, a product of the Jesuits at St Ignatius, Riverview and the spires of Oxford, during the Pope's visit to Sydney for World Youth Day in 2008,  peevishly dismissed a family whose two daughters had been raped by a priest as ''a few people dwelling crankily … on old wounds''. Not a good look.

On February 23rd 20017, as Bishop of Sydney, he almost redeemed himself by acknowledging the church’s inaction constituted “criminal negligence”, only to incriminate himself next day when asked by counsel assisting, Gail Furness about monitoring offenders when he replied; “I can’t pretend we have remotely sufficient supervision for me to be assured that they are not misbehaving again”.

Effective language easily ameliorates a criminal offence into a misdemeanour.

“If you look at what victims want in terms of justice, one of main things they want is criminal accountability of the hierarchy for covering it up,” she says.

She says some institutions have said the right things under oath before the commission, but then failed to take meaningful action to change their practices and acknowledge survivors away from the commission’s gaze.

“Because the law is so stuffed, it will be very difficult to get prosecutions for that. “The hierarchy responsible for cover-ups continue to enjoy impunity, and we know from the research that impunity causes profound harm.”

But the commission, she says, has at least highlighted the endemic scale of this concealment and the extraordinary lengths institutions went to protect their own, from sending perpetrators overseas to bullying survivors and their families.

August 2017

The archbishop of the archdiocese of Melbourne, Denis Hart, said he would risk going to jail rather than report allegations of child sexual abuse raised during confession, and that the sacredness of communication with God during confession should be above the law.

He was responding to a report from the child sex abuse royal commission calling for reforms that, if adopted by governments, would see failure to report child sex abuse in institutions become a criminal offence, extending to information given in religious confessions.

Speaking to ABC radio 774 in Melbourne, Hart said he stood by comments he made in 2011 that priests would rather be jailed than violate the sacramental seal.

Clergy who fail to report child abuse heard in confession should be charged – royal commission

“I believe [confession] is an absolute sacrosanct communication of a higher order that priests by nature respect,” Hart said on Tuesday morning.

“We are admitting a communication with God is of a higher order,” he said. “It is a sacred trust. It’s something those who are not Catholics find hard to understand but we believe it is most, most sacred and it’s very much part of us.”

He said much of the abuse that occurred was historical and awareness of abuse was greater now, and he believed it was unlikely “anything would ever happen” today.

Instead of accepting or even considering this change, Archbishop Hart immediately retorted that confession was a “fundamental part of the freedom of religion”.

“Confession in the Catholic Church is a spiritual encounter with God through the priest,” he said.

In other words, even if a child tells him or his bishops or priests in a confession box that they are being raped by a clergy member, Archbishop Hart would advocate not reporting this to the police.

The encounter with God is more important than the protection of the child and effectively means the Catholic religion is above the law.

No wonder his repugnant comments sparked outrage among advocates and survivors.

Archbishop Hart, 76, is living dangerously in the dark ages. Child abuse isn’t a sin that can be forgiven or ignored in the confession box.

It’s a heinous crime that needs to be dealt with in the form of many long, miserable years spent in a jail cell. Ideally a putrid one.

And priests should be guided by senior leaders like Archbishop Hart that it is mandatory to inform authorities.

Child Abuse in the Catholic Church

The subject of paedophilia in the Catholic Church is very topical, as there have been generations of uncompensated victims all around the world, and the abuse is still happening.

There have been paedophiles in all Christian denominations, yet the Catholic Church has the worst reputation of them all for a number of reasons. When one considers the sheer numbers of those abused, the church’s protection of their own paedophile offenders, and their blatant disregard for the welfare of victims, the Catholic Church has distinguished itself as the most evil and unrepentant of wrongdoers.

The extent of the sexual abuse of children perpetrated by catholic clergy and then hidden from the public by the hierarchy has been well documented in a few countries, and is becoming apparent in all others. Over the past few decades, there has been a tidal wave of evidence that thousands of Catholic clergy have raped and molested children.

It is important to keep in mind throughout this discussion that the vast majority of Catholic clergy, whether heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual, do not molest or sexually abuse children or adolescents.

Jewish

The female Principal of an ultra-orthodox Adass Israel School in East St.Kilda, subject of numerous allegations of sexual improprieties, was spirited out of Australia late at night to avoid involvement with the legal system by a member of the board who owned a travel agency.  Steps are underway to have her returned to Australia to face serious charges.

Rabbi Yosef Feldman argued that to report alleged child abusers to the police or secular authorities would put the offenders into the danger of being raped or mistreated in jail.  Despite wide publication he failed to understand that it was a requirement under Australian Law.  He also admitted he did not know as a fact – that it  was a crime to touch a child’s genitals.  

The silence of the lambs

“Over the past five years, it has become increasingly clear – even to some conservative Christians – that fundamentalist churches face a widespread epidemic of sexual abuse and institutional denial that could ultimately involve more victims than the paedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church ... The scale of potential abuse is huge. Evangelical Protestants far outnumber Catholics in the United States, with more than 280,000 churches, religious schools, and affiliated organizations.”

In the 1950’s, Reverend Gerald Fitzgerald, a Catholic priest, was the founder of “the Servants of the Paraclete,” an order that tried to rehabilitate errant priests. They ran treatment facilities for priests located in New Mexico, Missouri and California, and they were well known to all US bishops. Reverend Fitzgerald told the Vatican throughout the 1950s and most of the 1960s that paedophile activity among Catholic priests was rampant. While he thought he could help priests with drug and alcohol problems, he soon lost confidence in his ability to change paedophile priests’ behaviour. In 1957, he wrote to Archbishop Edwin Byrne (in Santa Fe) that he thought it unwise to “offer hospitality to men who have seduced or attempted to seduce little boys or girls.” He went on, “If I were a bishop, I would tremble when I failed to report them to Rome for involuntary laicization. Experience has taught us these men are too dangerous to the children of the parish and the neighbourhood for us to be justified in receiving them here…They should ipso facto be reduced to laymen when they act thus.” He had discovered for himself what the world now knows: paedophiles are usually unstoppably recidivist. One of his suggested solutions to deal with the desperate problem was that the Vatican could acquire a deserted Caribbean island to exile its paedophile priests. The Vatican ignored this suggestion. It was the 1950s, and father Fitzgerald was being pro-active and brave. He was a decent man, who, if he were alive today, would no doubt be recommending prison for paedophile offenders, not some Caribbean island.



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