Australian Catholic leaders reject key calls by child abuse inquiry

By Ben Westcott and Lucie Morris-Marr (CNN)
December 15, 2017

Senior leaders in Australia's Catholic church have rejected calls by a wide-reaching investigation into child abuse to end mandatory celibacy for priests and break the secrecy of confession.

The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which concluded Thursday after five years of work, delivered a total of 189 new recommendations to address what it described as a "serious failure" by Australia's institutions to protect its most vulnerable citizens.

The landmark report estimates tens of thousands of children have been abused in Australian institutions, in what the commission described as a "national tragedy."

"We now know that countless thousands of children have been sexually abused in many institutions in Australia. In many institutions, multiple abusers have sexually abused children," the report said.

"We must accept that institutional child sexual abuse has been occurring for generations."

The Catholic Church alone was the target of about 20 recommendations. In what would amount to a radical shake-up of centuries of tradition and religious orthodoxy, the recommendations called for protocols for screening priests, mandatory reporting of religious confessions and a suggestion to end mandatory celibacy for priests.

Of the survivors who reported being abused in a religious institution, 61.4% said it occurred in a Catholic organization.

"The failure to understand that the sexual abuse of a child was a crime with profound impacts for the victim, and not a mere moral failure capable of correction by contrition and penance ... is almost incomprehensible," the report said.

But the Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher refused to consider breaking the sanctity of confession, calling it a "distraction," while adding ending celibacy would not necessarily end child abuse.

"I think the debates about celibacy will go on however people respond to this issue," Fisher told a press conference Friday. "We know very well that institutions who have celibate clergy and institutions that don't have celibate clergy both face this problem. We know very well that this happens in families that are certainly not observing celibacy .... It is an issue for everyone, celibate or not."

Fisher added that any proposal to effectively stop the practice of confession in Australia "would be a real hurt to all Catholics and orthodox Christians and I don't think would help any young person."

Fisher went on to apologize to the victims of abuse, and admitted it had "damaged the credibility of the Church in the broader community."

Senior Catholic figure Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart echoed the views of Fisher, saying that while he fully apologized on behalf of the church, he "couldn't" report any child abuse revealed to him inside a confessional.

Speaking at a press conference Friday, the Archbishop added that while he would be unable to report revelations made inside a confessional, he "would certainly insist that if a person came to me and confessed those heinous crimes I would refuse them absolution until they went authorities," Hart told reporters.

Gary Bouma, professor of Sociology at Monash University in Melbourne, told CNN there will be resistance from within the Church but change is likely and "definitely possible."

"We have heard the most horrific accounts of abuse during this inquiry and the Catholic Church knows that they need make changes after so much outcry. It won't be easy and there will be a big push back but ultimately we may see change," said Bouma.

Although the report does not have jurisdiction on Rome it called for Australia's archbishops to ask the Vatican for the changes at the Bishop's conference putting pressure on the church itself to show they are willing to change.

One in 10 Catholic priests accused

Since 2012, the report's findings have shocked Australians with the breadth of abuse inside the country's religious and state institutions, such as churches, youth groups, care homes and schools.

In February 2017, the commission revealed 7% of Australian Catholic priests had been accused of abusing children inside religious institutions. In some orders, more than 40% of brothers were implicated.

Several prominent Catholic figures in Australia have already apologized for the commission's findings. On Friday, Francis Sullivan, CEO of the Catholic Church's Truth, Justice and Healing Council, said in a statement the recommendations were "very sensible and practical."

"What now needs to be made clear by the Church leadership is that they take these recommendations and findings seriously and that they are willing to act swiftly in implementing the findings," he said.

Sullivan added although the commission may have finished, the work of implementing its findings was "only now just starting."

Professor Des Cahill, a former priest who was a consultant to the inquiry, told CNN the recommendations issued Friday were "momentous."

"This report is devastating for the Catholic Church and it's the first time any appointed government inquiry has called for the end of mandatory celibacy," he said.

Allegations of sexual abuse in the Catholic church stretch across multiple countries with large Catholic populations, including Austria, Brazil, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and perhaps most famously, the United States, where children accused more than 4,000 priests of sexual abuse between 1950 and 2002, according to a report compiled by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

'An exercise in love'

Announced in 2012 under former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the royal commission interviewed almost 8,000 survivors of child sexual abuse over five years, and referred more than 2,500 matters to police.

Following the report's release, Gillard thanked the commissioners on her official social media.

"Our nation is indebted to you and to the survivors who fought so hard for justice and a safer future for our children," she said.

The report also called for a national memorial to be constructed in honor of the victims and survivors of institutional child sexual abuse in Canberra, the national capital.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the work of the commission had been an "exercise in love."

"Again and again you see this repeated: 'Thank you for hearing me,' 'thank you for believing me,' 'the first time somebody, an authority has listened to me, has heard my story'," he told reporters Friday.

Turnbull's government announced almost $40 million (AU$52 million) in funding Friday to help victims of child abuse, including up to $150,000 in compensation for each victim, according to local media.