VICTORIA: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Victorian sex abuse inquiry is too narrow
, November 10, 2012
The Victorian parliamentary inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other non-government organisations follows ongoing concern by the police and people involved in dealing with the consequences of sexual abuse, that the churches, particularly the Catholic Church, have not treated the problem of sexual abuse of children sufficiently seriously, and have not brought perpetrators to justice.
In its submission, the Victoria Police said, “Allegations of child abuse perpetrated by persons from religious organisations are a relatively small percent of Victoria Police’s child sexual assault investigations.
While it is generally accepted that incidents of sexual assault are grossly under-reported, there appears to be even greater reluctance for victims to report when it involves offending within the religious community.”
Among the problems which the police submission identified were that some organisations appeared to dissuade victims of sexual crime from reporting to the police; and that police considered the inquiry process undertaken by the Melbourne Catholic archdiocese to be detrimental to the prosecution of those suspected of criminal sexual crimes against children.
The police also reported the movement or protection of offenders who were known or suspected of committing sexual offences against children, and a failure to make offenders accountable to the law.
These are serious allegations which are supported by a number of independent submissions, including one by Professor Patrick Parkinson of the University of Sydney. If confirmed, they will lead to new laws to apprehend sex-offenders and to bring to account those who protect them.
The inquiry raises a number of issues beyond the scope of the limited parliamentary inquiry. The first is why do most of the reported offences involve Catholics?
The short answer is that child sexual abuse can occur whenever adults have unsupervised access to children. As the police submission says, “Allegations of child abuse perpetrated by persons from religious organisations are a relatively small percent of Victoria Police’s child sexual assault investigations.”
Sexual abuse allegations have involved the main Christian denominations, including Catholics, Anglicans and the Salvation Army, and members of the Jewish faith, as well as other organisations.
In the United States, the Boy Scouts of America recently released to a court in California over 1,800 files of alleged sexual abuse, dating from 1970 to 1991.
Second, the Catholic Church and its religious orders have historically been the largest providers of educational services in Australia, apart from the state. Inevitably, it means that clergy and religious have had close and unsupervised contact with children for generations.
The police inquiry indicates that most of the sex abuse allegations date from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s with the majority of offences reported relating to the 1970s. “Reporting of sex offences within this scope has seen fewer complaints relating to later years,” it said.
The 1960s-1980s was the period in which the cultural revolution of the 1960s was exacting a heavy toll on religious belief and practice, particularly in the Catholic Church.
It was a period when many priests and members of religious orders left religious life. There was widespread demoralisation of the clergy and, among those in authority, a combination of cover-up and denial.
As is the situation elsewhere in Australia, Victoria’s state education system does not publish statistics regarding the hundreds of complaints made each year by parents, students and staff.
However, a recent Freedom of Information request by the Melbourne Herald Sun brought to light 57 cases over the past three years that “were deemed so serious that they were referred to the department’s conduct and ethics unit” (Herald Sun, October 24, 2012).
The newspaper reported that 31 teachers were dismissed, another resigned, eight were demoted (including four principals) and 13 were given formal written warnings.
One consequence of the focus on sexual abuse by religious organisations is that the far wider problem of sexual abuse of children across society is largely ignored.
Studies have found that about 5 per cent of boys and an astonishing 27 per cent of young girls have experienced some level of sexual abuse, with 40 per cent of all cases involving family members.
Separately, ABS figures released last month, show that sexual assaults committed by school-aged children soared by 300 per cent between 2007 and 2011. This is a society-wide problem.
The trauma experienced by the victims often blights the rest of their lives, with feelings of anxiety, guilt and depression.
Only when the extent of the sexual abuse of children in society is fully examined will a consensus emerge to deal effectively with this serious but largely hidden social problem.