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.
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.
Mum and Dad instilled in us a healthy mistrust of organised religion.
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? When siblings are twins, envy is intensified. Ben’s sudden dive into an excited community looked appealing from my lonely world. At school, I lingered on the edge of the popular crowd at the oval, trying to fit in. I felt like a stranger to the girls who smoked at lunchtime and draped their thin limbs over each other. They laughed at me and forgot to invite me to parties. I was known but I was not loved.
‘You should, you know, come too,’ Ben mumbled to me one Friday.
So that night Dad dropped both of us at the church. The sun slipped below the horizon, the night was dark; bright lights lit the car park. I shut the door of the sea-green commodore and watched Dad drive away.
Ben quickly abandoned me for his raucous friends. Dodging boys on skateboards tearing across the asphalt, I edged towards the church entrance. A hand-painted sign next to the door said Revamp in red and black, and inside a Bouncing Souls song played, loud. I sat on a handrail next to the door and watched, eyes wide. Teens in jeans and Adidas jackets shouted and hugged each other before they headed inside.
A band had started playing and my heart thudded with the drumbeat. I knew what happened in church from those times I visited with a friend’s family – you had to stand up and sing songs, and then sit down and listen to someone talk. Here, though, it felt like something big was about to happe. Fear flooded my body.
A chirpy girl with red hair introduced herself as Elsa.
‘Wanna sit with me?’
I followed her into the church, red and purple lights flashing from behind the band, and I tucked my frizzy hair behind my ears.
The chaplain from my school bounded onstage, all shaggy hair and flared pants.
‘We come here to praise God for what He has done for us. Now let’s party!’
The music got louder, and everyone rushed to the bottom of the stage and began throwing their bodies around with abandon, hands in the air. I stayed in my seat. The hairs on my arms stood on end.
After the dancing stopped, a visiting youth pastor wearing a basketball top took the mike.
‘God loves you so much,’ he said, ‘He sent His Son to die for you!’
He prowled around the stage, building physical momentum and volume as he reached his point.
‘This means you can have a relationship with the living God!’
It all came rushing at me. All those lunchtimes I was lost and alone. Times when I had felt abandoned. When I didn’t know where to go, what to do, how to be. I closed my eyes and wept.
After that first night at youth group I went back the next week because the creator of the universe had a plan for my life. I saw Elsa again and we sat together again. And over time, I found the community that I craved at high school: I was known. And I was loved.
At Easter we went on camp. It was at Ankara campsite by the Murray River, near the Waikerie ferry. One hundred of us stayed in dorms, sprawled along the waterfront that faced an enormous sandy cliff.
Over time, I found the community that I craved at high school: I was known. And I was loved.
It was a time of getting to know spiritual practice. I learned to be still in heavenly peace when sitting cross-legged on dirty lino. I learned to pray sprawled on sparse grass in a circle of young women, wind whispering through eucalyptus leaves above us. And one of those nights in the chapel room I learned that opening up to God can be ugly – really ugly.
Elsa was part of a tight-knit group of four of us who ate breakfast together, kayaked together, fed each other lollies late at night in our dorms. One night, the preacher spoke about embracing God’s forgiveness, telling us neither height nor depth, neither angels nor demons can separate us from the love of God.
Elsa responded to the call for audience members to come forward and be prayed for, and sat hugging her knees to her chest on the fraying carpet, rocking and moaning tears, until long past the 10pm curfew. At only 17, she had a rocky relationship with her parents, and lived with an older couple from church. Every deep wail that came from her sent an arrow of horror through my chest
I know I was lucky to have found a community that I could trust; that I had attached myself to a group of girls my age. I was vulnerable in my teenage loneliness. If things had turned out differently, I might have been one of the people giving evidence to the Royal Commission.
Preliminary investigations by Victoria Police into child abuse in churches continue to haunt me. In a 2012 report, the police ‘linked forty suicides in the state to abuse by half a dozen priests and brothers alone,’ wrote David Marr in his September 2013 Quarterly Essay.
What is more repulsive is the Church’s tendency to defend its reputation and protect perpetrators. When Chrissie and Anthony Foster met with their parish priest, Father Teal, to discuss their daughter Emma’s abuse, he listened kindly. But as he left their house, he told them: ‘Don’t tell anyone.’
This response is emblematic of the wider church’s now well-documented habit of suppressing complaints. Ronald Mulkearns was a Catholic bishop at Ballarat from 1971 to 1997. When priests abused children in his diocese – and they did, continually, most notoriously Monsignor John Day and Father Gerald Ridsdale, who had hundreds of victims between them – Mulkearns moved them to another district rather than denounce the perpetrators publicly and see them charged for their crimes.
Mulkearns’ shadowy, bald profile was present at a Royal Commission hearing, where he admitted he wished he’d done things better. He appeared via video link from his nursing home, and claimed he was ‘terribly sorry’. He died in April 2015.
These stories are not limited to the Catholic Church. Hillsong is a Pentecostal mega-church founded in Sydney whose band, Hillsong United, tops ARIA charts and tours worldwide. Its founding pastors, Brian and Bobbie Houston, write bestselling books and are the figureheads of one of the most well-known churches in Australia.
Royal Commission public hearings in October 2015 revealed that Brian Houston’s father, Frank Houston, abused up to nine boys from the 1960s onwards in New Zealand and Australia. When allegations of abuse emerged in 1999, the executive body of the denomination (Assemblies of God in Australia) did not interview the victim or the perpetrator. They did not report the suspension of Frank’s minister credentials (as required by law) and they did not refer the evidence to the police.
This pattern is by now familiar to us all. Accusations of abuse surface and a religious organisation closes ranks and protects the culpable. Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Australian Catholic cleric, has publicly denied knowledge of abuse in the Catholic Church, despite serving at a parish where abuse was rife. His name is synonymous with rancorous men of power, defensive and protective.
After hearing Pell’s adversarial responses, Anthony Foster said he had ‘given up hope’ the Cardinal would seek justice.
In 2016, Pell refused to leave the Vatican to give evidence to the Royal Commission in Australia, claiming heart trouble prevented him from travelling on long-haul flights. So the Royal Commission went to him.
A public hearing in Rome allowed Pell to give over 20 hours of evidence to the Catholic Church’s handling of abuse accusations. Chrissie Foster and Anthony Foster were part of a group that travelled to Rome as ‘victim representatives’, many of whom had flights paid for by crowdfunding. After hearing Pell’s adversarial responses, Anthony Foster said he had ‘given up hope’ the Cardinal would seek justice.
The culture I came of age in was one suspicious of Big Religion; even in the mid 2000s, popular trust in institutional authority had been eroded for years. Perhaps that is why, as an adult, I have gravitated towards small, grassroots communities, not mega-churches with large auditoriums or cathedrals with priests on pedestals.
The enormous spires, marble hallways, and arrogant authority of traditional churches have always seemed alien to me, antithetical even, to the great meaning found in humbler settings. Jesus Christ was born in a dirty stable, not a palace, and ate meals alongside ancient-day sex workers, the disabled, the disempowered. He rejected a life of material comfort in order to spend time with people. How does that translate to wealthy grandeur, to men in robes orating from gilded platforms?
I left my youth group’s church after school ended, about the time they raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to renovate their building. I found a new community called Activate, centred on the idea that a love for God moves us to social justice.
It’s not a new idea that faith demands action. One of the first ancient Christian communities in the Middle East sold their property and possessions to give to those who were in need. More recently, the non-violent actions of Christ inspired Martin Luther King Jr’s civil disobedience. In a response to the letter from the white clergymen, he wrote ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’, which appealed to Christian leaders to join him in fighting against oppression. He saw this as central to faith.
Some of the largest charity providers are connected to church denominations: Anglicare, St Vincent de Paul, the Salvation Army. They organise buses to pick up elderly people who live alone and go on day trips to the countryside, programs that quietly feed the homeless, that house asylum seekers, and that campaign for foreign aid.
These aren’t faceless institutions, these are people: washing up cups from morning tea, giving money when someone can’t make rent, listening with a warm and unassuming smile. This is humble service in action.
A lot of people I went to youth group with no longer go to church. If the hypocrisy of church leaders did not discourage their spirituality, it certainly tainted their faith in religious institutions. My journey has taken me down a different road: I’ve been taught that the church should be on the side of the oppressed and vulnerable.
And that is why I still go to Activate, which has grown into a community of social workers, teachers, and activists, who are called radical, progressive, even blasphemous by other Christians. It’s why my heart burns for the betrayal of the abused speaking up in the Royal Commission. It’s why I know we can do better, and why I feel a strong purpose to work for a better future in my small sphere of influence.
My journey has [taught me] that the church should be on the side of the oppressed and vulnerable.
My family’s home was never religious. And now, despite being committed to my church community – attending regularly, preaching some weekends, getting on board with social initiatives – I still refuse that term. Religious brings to mind grandiose buildings, institutional hypocrisy, the unchecked authority of arrogant men.
My faith has instead brought me again and again to small, unremarkable community. Life alongside each other: visiting a friend who shares feelings about the scary isolation of motherhood. Being rescued from a rainy roadside by a warm car. Resting in the tight embrace of someone who knows me and loves me. It is not always nice and it is not often easy, but this is where deep meaning is found.
If the Royal Commission will recommend policy to protect vulnerable children in the future, then here is my suggestion: demolish the grand cathedrals. Cut down the spires. Chip away the marble hallways. These grandiose old buildings are crumbling to make way for grassroots communities, meek in size and humble in influence.
It is not a perfect solution – my church Activate is still learning the best ways to include and welcome – but it will disrupt the narrative of unchecked power, wealth and political control that allowed so many abusers to hide. Instead of a crowd looking up to one unquestionable authority, many humble lives will be intertwined. We will be known. We will be loved. And we will be seen.