EDITORIAL by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Commission report demonstrates old saying about statistics
, March 11, 2017
In the latest report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the commission published extravagant claims of the extent of child sexual abuse of children within the Catholic Church, foreshadowing adverse findings against the Church, and ignoring the evidence in its own report of substantial efforts to deal with abusers and compensate victims.
The 279-page report is entitled, “Analysis of claims of child sexual abuse made with respect to Catholic Church institutions in Australia”.
Media reports across Australia highlighted the most sensational claims in the report. These included that between the years 1950 and 2010, there had been over 4,400 allegations made against over 1,880 priests, religious and lay people within the Catholic Church.
The commission is clearly targeting the Catholic Church because of its laws on celibacy – when compelling evidence has already been given that sexual abuse of children has been widespread in the Anglican Church, the Salvation Army, in Protestant denominations, and in the Jewish faith, not to mention in government departments responsible for children’s welfare.
The report is distressing, and is clearly intended to be so. The response by the Catholic Church’s Truth and Justice Council’s Francis Sullivan was to admit the Church’s guilt. His approach was echoed by the Catholic Church leaders who attended the royal commission.
They apparently believe that any critique of the report will be dismissed as self-serving propaganda designed to whitewash the problem.
While such an approach is understandable, it ignores the fact that the report is, in many ways, deeply flawed, as pointed out by Geoffrey Luck, who is not Catholic, in an important article in Quadrant Online, and by Herald Sun writer Andrew Bolt, who is an agnostic.
Problems with the report include the fact that it lists the total number of allegations, not convictions, and the number of alleged perpetrators, not convicted criminals.
It is a very well established fact that an allegation is, of its nature, unproven. Many certainly will be true, but the number of proven cases is far lower than the number of allegations.
This was confirmed in an SBS analysis of sexual assault in Australia two years ago, reporting figures compiled by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.
“In NSW there were 3,951 separate sexual offence incidents reported to police in 2013. In that year 715 people were charged and 374 were found guilty (SBS News article, July 17, 2015).
In other words, in NSW over 82 per cent of allegations did not lead to charges being laid, and fewer than 10 per cent were convicted.
We are painfully aware of well-publicised cases where paedophile priests have been convicted, but there have been many other cases where the police laid charges, and the defendant was acquitted. In the royal commission report, these cases are still included as alleged perpetrators.
A second problem is that there is no recognition that there are different levels of abuse. All forms of abuse are criminal, but there are very great differences between improper touching of a minor, which is technically assault, to very grave abuse such as rape, which occurred in a small minority of cases.
A further problem is that the bald statistics, which cover reported abuse across Australia over a period of 60 years – from 1950 to 2010 – lack any context, in comparison with the problem of sexual abuse in the wider community, and in relation to the Catholic Church’s response over recent decades to deal with abuse allegations.
While even a single case is one too many, it is interesting to compare the situation in the Catholic Church with the problems in the wider society.
According to the Bureau of Statistics, in the single year 2015, 7,464 females and 1,148 males were subject to sexual assault in a family and domestic violence context (Recorded Crime: Victims, Australia, 2015, ABS). This is far higher than the number alleged in the Catholic Church over a 60-year period!
The royal commission study also shows that most abuse cases occurred between the 1960s and the 1980s. This was the time of the sexual revolution in the wider society, which clearly affected religious life, and also a time when religious communities were trying to expand to meet the increasing demand for Catholic education.
Most interestingly, the royal commission report shows that for priests, religious brothers and nuns, the number of complaints fell dramatically from the 1990s (Report, pp49–50), when the problem of sexual abuse became widely recognised, and people at risk of abusing were excluded from seminaries and houses of religious formation.
None of this was reported in the media. Clearly, good news is no news.
As Mark Twain famously wrote: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.