The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has revealed decades of systemic cover-ups in the highest echelons of organised religion. How can we reconcile these abject crimes with spirituality and faith?
It is no secret that the Christian Church has compelled violence and oppression throughout history.
The Crusades in the 11th century saw faithful men embark on a regime of murder across Europe. From the late 1500s, church-sponsored witch-hunts equated sorcery with devil-worshipping, and put two and half thousand people on trial in Scotland, with almost two thirds of them executed.
In the early 19th century, slavery was often justified in the United States by a Bible verse from the book of Titus: ‘Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything.’ And at the height of the US civil rights movement, Baptist preacher Martin Luther King Jr lead non-violent protests. Eight white religious leaders of the day published a letter in a newspaper addressed to Luther King Jr, demanding that he stop breaking the law.
In Australia, we’re familiar with such history. Here the Christian missions, along with governments of the time, attempted to obliterate indigenous culture well into the 1970s through the Stolen Generation policy.
Yes, in all their power, churches have directed, aided and hidden the sins of humankind. But only recently has the discovery that Christian institutions have long harboured paedophile priests been made public. Allegations of child abuse in religious organisations emerged in the 1990s and 2000s thanks to journalists’ investigations, and victims’ reports to the police, all of which culminated most recently in the much-publicised Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Here at last was proof of churches’ responses to abuse claims: refusals to report to police; hushed payments to silence families; a tactic of moving perpetrators to different locations without revoking authority.
The establishment of the Royal Commission had been a long and difficult process, and one that had been thwarted for many years. The Western Australian state government attempted a parliamentary inquiry into child abuse in state care in 1996 but soon realised to record the full extent of abuse in state-run boarding hostels required more resources. In an interim report, the body recommended a royal commission, an initiative deemed the ‘institution of last resort’, where the highest level of investigation and sensitivity was required.
Queensland held a similar inquiry in 1999, and in 2011 Victoria launched an inquiry into protecting vulnerable children, and sent the report to then premier, Ted Bailieu. The Victorian Police made a submission, reporting that the Catholic Church protected abusers. Public pressure for a federal investigation exploded.
When the then prime minister, Julia Gillard, announced the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Abuse in November 2012, six commissioners were appointed to investigate how these institutions had failed children. The Royal Commission gathers data by listening to the stories of survivors in public hearings and private sessions, and organises evidence by releasing reports on each organisation, and it is still in progress.
The call-out to ‘share your story’ has been long reaching and available to anyone who was sexually abused as a child when under the responsibility of an institution. Tales of suffering have dated back to the 1940s and at the time of writing, more than 5000 people have spoken up.
There have been over 2000 referrals to authorities. Many institutions have been investigated since the commission began, but a disproportionate percentage has been within denominations of Christian churches.
Mum and Dad instilled in us a healthy mistrust of organised religion.
Child abuse in the church is a story of unchecked authority, male power, and institutional self-protection, and has been the primary public face of Christianity for many years.
I became used to snide jokes about ‘kiddy fiddlers’ when I started going to church at 15. My home had never been religious; my family carried memories of a harsh Catholic education. I was told stories about nuns with grim, set mouths and hands twitching to snap rulers on uncompliant hands.
Mum and Dad instilled in us a healthy mistrust of organised religion. There is just the two of us, my twin brother and me. Despite our parents’ cynicism, Ben started going to a youth group at a Uniting Church a few streets away from my high school. It was called Revamp and its programs sought to harness restless teenage energy and create community with a purpose.
On Friday nights my brother went to campfires on dark hills, battle of the bands competitions, car parks with impromptu skate ramps; events which culminated in short speeches about the love of Jesus Christ. He found his tribe, a bunch of boys that were as loud and reckless as a pack of dogs roaming the streets.
And where was my tribe?