In a wide-ranging report released Friday, Australia’s royal commission found serious failings in the protection of children from abuse in the Catholic Church and other major institutions.
The commission recommended Dec. 15 that priests should be legally obligated to disclose details of sexual abuse revealed in the confessional and that priestly celibacy should be made optional.
The Vatican responded by saying the report should be “studied seriously”, reiterating its commitment to hearing and accompanying victims of child sex abuse in the pursuit of healing and justice.
Church officials in Australia apologized for the suffering caused and pledged their commitment to ensuring justice, while also noting the impossibility of violating the secrecy of sacramental confession.
The report was the result of an investigation in which the commission reviewed thousands of accounts of child abuse from figures in major institutions. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was established in 2013 to investigate the handling of child sex abuse allegations by religious groups, schools, government organizations, and sporting associations.
Of the institutions examined, the most accusations were brought against the Catholic Church, in which more than 4,000 cases of child abuse reportedly occurred, making up 61.8 percent of all reported child abuse cases from religious entities.
In a previously released portion of the report, the commission found that seven percent of Catholic priests in Australia serving between 1950 and 2009 have been accused of child sex crimes.
"Tens of thousands of children have been sexually abused in many Australian institutions. We will never know the true number," the report said.
"It is not a case of a few 'rotten apples'. Society's major institutions have seriously failed."
Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne, president of the Australian bishops' conference, said the report reveals a “shameful past, in which a prevailing culture of secrecy and self-protection led to unnecessary suffering for many victims and their families.”
He also reiterated his “unconditional apology for this suffering and a commitment to ensuring justice for those affected.”
Sister Ruth Durick OSU, president of Catholic Religious Australia, added that religious orders across Australia are will continue their recent work of reforming orders to better protect children.
“We acknowledge with gratitude the courage of all those survivors who have come forward to the Royal Commission,” Sr. Ruth said. “We will be taking very seriously the Royal Commission's report and have commissioned an initial assessment of its findings by the Truth, Justice and Healing Council.”
As part of the report, the commission made numerous recommendations, such as changes to Australia’s criminal justice system and various recommendations for the Catholic Church, “many of which will have a significant impact on the way the Catholic Church operates in Australia,” the bishops said in their statement.
However, among some of the controversial recommendations are that priests should be legally obligated to disclose details of sexual abuse revealed in the confessional, and that they should face criminal charges if they refuse to do so.
In a statement in August, Hart stressed the importance of maintaining the confidentiality of confession while also ensuring that children are protected.
“Confession in the Catholic Church is a spiritual encounter with God through the priest,” Hart said in an Aug. 14 statement.
Confession “is a fundamental part of the freedom of religion, and it is recognized in the Law of Australia and many other countries,” he said. “It must remain so here in Australia…(but) outside of this, all offenses against children must be reported to the authorities, and we are absolutely committed to doing so.”
Additionally, the report recommended that the Catholic Church make celibacy an optional requirement of the priesthood, rather than a mandatory one, because while celibacy is not a cause of child abuse, the commission considered it a contributing factor when combined with other risk factors, according to the BBC.
Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney told the Guardian that changing the celibacy requirement is not the solution to the abuse crisis.
“We know very well that institutions who have celibate clergy and institutions that don’t have celibate clergy both face these problems. We know very well that this happens in families that are certainly not observing celibacy,” he said.
The Holy See also responded to the report, saying in a statement on Friday that it “deserves to be studied seriously.”
“The Holy See remains committed to being close to the Catholic Church in Australia — lay faithful, religious, and clergy alike — as they listen to and accompany victims and survivors in an effort to bring about healing and justice,” the Vatican statement said.
“In his recent meeting with the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Pope Francis said the Church is called to be a place of compassion, especially for those who have suffered, and reaffirmed that the Church is committed to safe environments for the protection of all children and vulnerable adults.”
At the end of the statement from the Australian bishop’s conference, the Church leaders restated their commitment to making amends for past abuse, and called on state governments to aid them in this task.
“Both leaders said the Church will continue to push for the introduction of a national redress scheme for the survivors of child sexual abuse in which the Church will participate.”
Philip Freier, the Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne, apologized for “the shameful way we sometimes actively worked against and discouraged those who came to us and reported abuse.”