Australian inquiry finds 7 percent of Catholic priests accused of sexually abusing youths

Protesters in Australia in 2008
(Image credit: William West/AFP/Getty Images)

On Monday, the head lawyer for Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse said that 7 percent of Catholic priests in the country have been accused of sexually abusing minors between 1950 and 2010, and 4,444 children reported abuse at more than 1,000 Catholic institutions between 1980 and 2015. The royal commission has been investigating how religious and secular organizations have responded to the sexual and physical abuse of children, and Monday was the opening of what's expected to be three weeks of public hearings. All of Australia's Catholic archbishops are gathered in Sydney to testify.

The abuse did not occur just at Catholic institutions, said Gail Furness, the lead lawyer assisting the royal commission, but 60 percent of all sexual abuse survivors were abused at faith-based organizations, and of that 60 percent, nearly two-thirds were tied to the Catholic Church; Catholicism is the largest religion in Australia, accounting for 26 percent of the population as of 2006. In interviews and hearings, the survivors' stories were "depressingly similar," Furness said. "Children were ignored or worse, punished. Allegations were not investigated. Priests and religious [figures] were moved. The parishes or communities to which they were moved knew nothing of their past."

The worst abuse happened at certain religious orders — 40 percent of the St. John of God Brothers were accused of abuse since 1950, for example, as were 22 percent of the Christian Brothers. The average age of victims was 10.5 for girls and 11.5 for boys, and it took on average 33 years survivors to report their abuse. Of the 1,880 alleged abusers in the Catholic Church, 572 were priests.

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Francis Sullivan, the head of the Australian Catholic Church's Truth Justice and Healing Council, wept as he told the commission that the statistics, made public for the first time, are "shocking, they are tragic, and they are indefensible," showing "a massive failure" by the church. Each number "represents a child who suffered at the hands of someone who should have cared for, and protected them," he said. "As Catholics, we hang our heads in shame."

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