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Australian prelate ‘personally shaken’ by abuse statistics

February 9, 2017
Catholic News Service

SYDNEY – Considered as an overall percentage of those serving between 1950 and 2010, 7.9 percent of diocesan priests and 5.7 percent of religious priests in Australia have had allegations made against them, making a total of 7 percent of priests overall, the Catholic Weekly, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Sydney, reported as Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse opened hearings Feb. 6.

The paper reported that of the 1,880 alleged perpetrators identified, 592 were religious brothers, 572 were priests, 543 were laypeople and 96 were religious sisters.

Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher, who is expected to appear before the commission, revelations from the commission’s first day of hearings “harrowing” and said he “personally felt shaken and humiliated by this information.”

“The church is sorry and I am sorry for past failures that left so many so damaged,” the archbishop said in a statement Feb. 6. “I know that many of our priests, religious and lay faithful feel the same: As Catholics, we hang our heads in shame.”

The archbishop noted the Royal Commission would focus on two main issues: “what factors caused or contributed to historical child sex abuse cases in the church and failures to respond adequately; and what the church has done or plans to do to address this by way of changes to structures, policies and culture, the discernment of priestly and religious vocations, formation and supervision of those engaged in ministry, and so on.”

“The coming weeks will be traumatic for everyone involved, especially the survivors,” he said. “I remain determined to do all we can to assist those who have been harmed by the church and to work toward a culture of greater transparency, accountability and safety for all children.”

The archbishop published phone numbers for counselors and for the church’s safeguarding office and encouraged those bothered by what they heard to talk to their parish priest, or for priests to talk to their superiors. Although most of the charges mentioned in the study were in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, Archbishop Fisher encouraged anyone alleging sexual abuse to contact police.

The Catholic Weekly reported that Gail Furness, senior counsel assisting the Royal Commission, described the cases the commission has looked at so far as “depressingly similar,” where children were ignored or punished, allegations not investigated, priests and religious moved and documents destroyed. She said that many children suffered then, and continue to suffer as adults, because of this.”

During the hearing, commission members and expert church witnesses engaged in a discussion of whether mandatory celibacy could be linked to sexual abuse.

They also discussed the church’s culture and governance, with Marist Father Michael Whelan, director of the Aquinas Academy, describing it as a culture of empire-building, always presenting the best face. Clericalism treated priests as superior to laypeople, he said.

The Catholic Weekly reported Father Whelan called for more transparency in the appointment of bishops, more women involved at every level of ministry, and laypeople involved in seminary formation.

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