1 in 14 Catholic priests accused of child abuse in Australia
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1 in 14 Catholic priests accused of child abuse in Australia

Inquiry commission hears how records were destroyed, religious figures reassigned when accusations surfaced

Cardinal George Pell walks onto the stage for the opening mass for World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia, July 15, 2008. (AP/Rick Rycroft)
Cardinal George Pell walks onto the stage for the opening mass for World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia, July 15, 2008. (AP/Rick Rycroft)

SYDNEY Australia — Seven percent of Catholic priests were accused of abusing children in Australia between 1950 and 2010 but the allegations were never investigated, “shocking and indefensible” data showed Monday during an inquiry into pedophilia in the church.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard that 4,444 alleged incidents of pedophilia were reported to church authorities and in some dioceses, more than 15 percent of priests were perpetrators.

Australia ordered the Royal Commission in 2012 after a decade of growing pressure to investigate allegations of child abuse across the country, with the inquiry now in its final phase after four years of hearings.

“Between 1950 and 2010, overall seven percent of priests were alleged perpetrators,” said Gail Furness, the lawyer leading questioning at the inquiry in Sydney.

“The accounts were depressingly similar. Children were ignored or worse, punished. Allegations were not investigated. Priests and religious (figures) were moved,” she added.

“The parishes or communities to which they were moved knew nothing of their past. Documents were not kept or they were destroyed. Secrecy prevailed as did cover ups.”

The average age of the victims at the time was 10 for girls and 11 for boys.

Of the 1,880 alleged perpetrators, 90 percent were men.

The St John of God Brothers religious order was the worst, with just over 40 percent of members accused of abuse.

The commission has spoken to thousands of survivors and heard claims of child abuse involving churches, orphanages, sporting clubs, youth groups and schools.

The church in Australia set up the Truth, Justice and Healing Council to coordinate its response.

“These numbers are shocking, they are tragic, they are indefensible,” its chief executive Francis Sullivan told the commission.

“This data, along with all we have heard over the past four years, can only be interpreted for what it is: a massive failure on the part of the Catholic Church in Australia to protect children from abusers.

“As Catholics we hang our heads in shame.”

The inquiry has embroiled Australia’s most senior Catholic cleric George Pell, now the Vatican’s finance chief, who was questioned over his dealings with paedophile priests in Victoria state in the 1970s.

Pell was also accused of historic sex abuse claims when he was the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney in 2002, but was later cleared of any wrongdoing. He has denied all allegations.

Since being set up, the commission has made over 300 referrals to police but so far there have only been 27 prosecutions with 75 cases pending.

The commission began its investigation in 2013. It has investigated the Catholic Church, the Australian Scouts, a yoga ashram and other groups, and has made inquiries into several sexual-assault cases in the Jewish community in order to report how those institutions responded to sexual abuse against children and how they prevented it — or failed to.

In February 2015 Australia’s most senior rabbi resigned after testimony heard by the commission revealed he had sent a message calling the father of some victims “a lunatic.”

Meir Shlomo Kluwgant stepped down from his position as president of the Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia as well as from the Rabbinical Council of Victoria, making him the third high-profile rabbi to resign amid the inquiries into sexual abuse at educational institutions.

A week earlier Yosef Feldman, director of the Yeshivah Center, resigned after admitting to the commission that he “didn’t have a clue” that it might be criminal for a member of staff to touch the genitals of a student and that he was unaware of the correct procedures for reporting incidents of sex abuse, The Guardian reported.

Rabbi Abraham Glick, who headed the yeshiva, also resigned at the time.

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