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Australian inquiry into child sex abuse 'should have focused on Catholic Church', former priest says

Royal Commission has been extended past Roman Catholic Church to include other state and religious institutions, but critics say widening probe will take at least five years and be extremely costly.
Stephen Woods, who was abused by three Christian Brothers, remains furious at the way the Roman Catholic Church concealed abuse.
Stephen Woods, who was abused by three Christian Brothers, remains furious at the way the Roman Catholic Church concealed abuse.

SYDNEY // Stephen Woods was 11 when he was first abused by a teacher at his Roman Catholic primary school in Ballarat, Victoria. Robert Best, from the Christian Brothers religious order, would take him to his office and molest him, "while all the time telling me that I was bad and it was my fault".

Another Christian Brother, Edward Dowlan, abused him at a boys' boarding school and when Mr Woods, troubled and confused, later sought advice from the Catholic Church, he was introduced to Gerald Risdale, who raped him in a public toilet by Lake Wendouree, in Ballarat. He was 14.

All three men, who had multiple victims, were eventually jailed by the Australian authorities, but Mr Woods, now 51, remains furious at the way the Church concealed their actions. Risdale was moved from parish to parish, and Victoria police later concluded that the bishop of Ballarat, Ronald Mulkearns, had known about his behaviour as far back as the 1970s. Despite that, Risdale was allowed to continue in the ministry until his arrest in 1993.

It is this type of systemic failing that a royal commission, announced last week by Julia Gillard, the Australian prime minister, is to address. It will focus not only on the Roman Catholic Church - which, as in other countries such as Ireland and Germany, has been plagued by child-abuse scandals - but on other religious and state institutions, such as schools, orphanages and Scout groups.

Calls had been mounting following allegations by a senior detective, chief inspector Peter Fox, of rampant abuse and cover-ups in one Catholic diocese north of Sydney. In an open letter published in the Newcastle Herald this month, Insp Fox wrote that the Church "covers up, silences victims, hinders police investigations, alerts offenders, destroys evidence and moves priests to protect the good name of the Church".

Ms Gillard's decision to order a national inquiry reflects her belief that the problem is not confined to one area, or to the Church. However, some commentators have questioned the wisdom of widening it, predicting it will take at least five years and be extremely costly. A national inquiry into child abuse in the Church in Ireland lasted nine years.

"They should have focused on the Catholic Church," said Kevin Lee, a former priest who was forced to move parish in Sydney after complaining about a fellow priest. "Instead, it's a case of 'let's shoot a shotgun at everybody and hope we hit somebody'."

While victims welcomed the royal commission - Mr Woods said he was "dancing for joy" - some were concerned by the reaction of Cardinal George Pell, the Archbishop of Sydney and head of the Church in Australia. Cardinal Pell, who had previously dismissed a royal commission as unnecessary, accused the media of "exaggerating … the extent of misdoing", and said the inquiry would "separate fact from fiction".

The primate of the Anglican Church, Archbishop Phillip Aspinall, said he had requested a royal commission 10 years ago, but the prime minister at the time, John Howard, had declined.

The inquiry, expected to begin early next year, was welcomed by former pupils abused at a Jewish school in Melbourne, and by former residents of state-run children's homes.

The Catholic Church does not deny covering up paedophilia in the past, but said things have changed since new protocols were put in place in 1997.

That is disputed by Patrick Parkinson, a law professor at the University of Sydney, whom the church commissioned to review the protocols. He said that sexual abuse was still being covered up as recently as 2005. Prof Parkinson discovered that the Church had allowed three members of the Salesian order - who work with the young and poor boys - against whom allegations had been made, to travel or remain overseas.

When he wrote a report on the cases, it was suppressed. "There is a real issue about the level of cooperation between the Church and the police, and the extent to which the Church sees itself as being bound by the laws of the country," he told The National. Comprehensive studies, he said, revealed that abuse within the Catholic Church was "something like six times as high as all the other churches put together".

Across Australia, 191 complaints had been made against Anglican clergy, curates and youth workers since 1990. Within the Catholic Church, there were 620 cases in Victoria alone. "With that level of differential, you've got to ask some serious questions about celibacy, and about a church which tends to deal with everything behind closed doors and has a deeply ingrained culture of trying to keep things away from the criminal justice system," said Prof Parkinson.

"I believe that huge changes have occurred, and my feeling is that churches are generally very safe places now for kids. But the Catholic Church remains as the festering wound."


Updated: November 21, 2012 04:00 AM