The former judge who chaired the royal commission into child sexual abuse has singled out the Catholic Church as the only institution whose leaders failed to recognise sexual assaults of children as a crime, as distinct from a moral failure.
“I cannot comprehend how any person, much less one with qualifications in theology and very often further qualifications from recognised universities, could consider the rape of a child to be a moral failure but not a crime,” former Justice Peter McClellan said, as he co-delivered the 2019 Human Rights Day Oration on December 10.
His co-orator was Chrissie Foster, who became one of the key advocates for survivors of child sexual abuse after two of her daughters were abused by a priest.
Mrs Foster spoke about her family’s experience, reminding the audience that hers “was just one of thousands of families caught up in the toxic and deadly crime of child assault” within the Catholic priesthood.
“We just don’t want an apology, we want action,” she said.
“We have all given our hearts and souls, we have re-traumatised ourselves to bring forward what happened to us so that the whole of Australia can learn and so that it doesn’t happen again.”
Referring to the sexual abuse of children in many institutions over many decades, former Justice McClellan said: “Our child protection institutions and civil justice systems let them down.
“We cannot avoid the conclusion that the problems faced by many people who had been abused is the responsibility of our entire society.”
Justice McClellan repeated some of the staggering figures encountered by the royal commission during five years of operation – contact with 16,953 people under the inquiry terms of reference, 7981 survivors heard in private sessions, 1344 written accounts and 2562 matters referred to police.
“The greatest number of survivors came from Catholic institutions where it is apparent there have been many offenders,” he said.
“The abuse was covered up, and offenders were moved to protect the Church, which inevitably endangered other children.
“We heard from many leaders of the Catholic Church. When offering an excuse for the Church’s failure to act we were told by more than one leader that they perceived the offending to be a ‘moral failure’ rather than a criminal act.
“This statement by leaders of the Catholic Church marks out the corruption within the Church both within Australia, and it seems from reports, in many other parts of the world.
“The royal commission has made many recommendations for change in the Catholic Church.
“It is to be hoped they will be adopted and the Church will be able to fulfil the mission which it defines for itself in Australia.
“I appreciate that there are many Australian Catholics who fear that the necessary changes may not occur.
“Although we engaged with more survivors of the Catholic Church than other institutions, it is readily apparent that the leadership in many other institutions also failed.
“But it was only Catholic leaders who believed these were mere moral failures rather than recognising sexual offending against minors as a crime.”