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'Let The Little Children Come To Me' is a Poor Choice of Quotes at a Child Abuse Hearing

But so began the statement by the representative of the Catholic Church at the Royal Commission into Child Abuse in Sydney yesterday.

by Carly Learson
11 December 2013, 1:19am

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So began the statement by the representative of the Australian Catholic Church at the Royal Commission into Child Abuse hearing in Sydney yesterday. The quote from the bible drove a whole section of the audience to leave the room, some of them in tears. If the Catholic Church wanted to prove that it's an insensitive and old fashioned institution, that was the way to do it.

The Commission began its fourth public hearing this week, this time into the way the Catholic Church deals with complaints of child abuse by priests and other authority figures. It heard that the majority of abuse happened to children in schools, colleges and orphanages, mostly those run by the Christian Brothers, the Marist Brothers and the De La Salle Brothers.

The commission will examine the way the Catholic Church's "Towards Healing" program works (or doesn't work) by hearing from four victims of abuse by priests or other religious leaders who went through the program.

Towards Healing began in 1996 to deal with the huge backlog of complaints of abuse that went back decades. It's a scheme where victims report the abuse to the church and then go through a process that includes meetings with the church's insurance company, confronting the abusers (if they're still alive) and then negotiating a compensation package.

Since Towards Healing began the church has received 2215 complaints, two thirds of those relating to abuse between 1950 and 1980. 1,700 of the victims chose to go with the Towards Healing program. So far the program has paid $43 million to victims as compensation, with the highest individual payment being around $850,000.

The Catholic Church in Australia has been self-destructing pretty quickly over the past 50 years. The number of Australian nuns and priests has decreased by 67% since 1966, and all over the world newly recruited nuns and priests are coming more from poor countries where it's a career option rather than a calling. Only 12% of Catholics in Australia go to church regularly. The median age of Australian Catholics is 73.

The representative of the Catholic Church at the Commission, barrister Peter Gray, apologised on behalf of the church for the suffering caused to victims, quoting the bible extensively, and made it be known that the church has paid $43 million in compensation to victims. Yet every day the Catholic Church earns $41 million from its businesses and assets. All up, it's estimated the Church's assets are worth $100 billion. And it pays no taxes. What's more, little 73 year old ladies give the church part of their pensions every week. What's more, as a charity it's really hard to sue them in the way you could a company. 

What is becoming clear from the commission is something that everyone already knew—priests and brothers and other religious leaders have been abusing kids all over Australia for decades, and they're not willing to change. There's been no indication that the Church will change its rules so women can become priests, even though the chance of a female priest sexually abusing kids is about as close to zero as you can get. The way they've dealt with claims of abuse was to set up an insurance company to limit their liability, despite the church's huge wealth.

The compensation paid to victims appears to be arbitrary, but it's more likely that it's more about limiting damage to their reputation than it is related to the damage caused to the victim. The first witness, Joan Isaacs, got $30,000 after two years of negotiation. With that money she paid her legal costs of $20,000 and then bought a sewing machine and some shares. She'd been abused for two years when she was 14 and 15. The second victim, Jennifer Ingham, got $265,000 plus $12,000 for legal costs to compensate for four years of abuse by an alcoholic priest. The third, unnamed witness got $36,500 for a year of abuse as a 13-year-old. The fourth, also unnamed victim who was abused by three priests got $88,000.

But you can't fix child abuse by throwing money at victims. The Church has to change. But for starters, if you've got kids, it might be an idea to send them to public school. 

Follow Carly on Twitter: @carlylearson

For more from the Catholic Church:

Papal Infallibility Is a Problem For The Catholic Church

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The Sad State Of America’s Aging Sisters