Child sexual abuse & religious organisations
As of 31 May 2017, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse had heard from 6,875 survivors in private sessions, of whom 4,029 (58.6%) reported child sexual abuse in religious institutions. Of these, 2,489 survivors (61.8%) told of child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions, and 594 of abuse in Anglican institutions (14.7%). The majority of survivors were male and the average age at first time of abuse was 10.3 years. The most common religious contexts in which alleged abuse occurred were religious schools (39%), religious institutions such as orphanages, children’s homes and missions (35.2%), and places of workshop (24.8%). Survivors took, on average, 23.9 years to tell someone they had been sexually abused (Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, 2017a).
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard from survivors about many barriers to disclosure that are particular to abuse within religious organisations. These barriers included fears of disclosing to devoutly religious families or because of attitudes to sex and sexuality in their religious community, fears of being ostracised, and reluctance to “bring shame” on the religious organisation. Grooming and psychological manipulation on behalf of the perpetrator was common, as well as institutional barriers to disclosure including cultures of secrecy and abuse, inappropriate responses to children who did disclose, and inadequate avenues for disclosure. Additionally, the status and authority of people in religious ministry prevented many victims from disclosing about their experiences of sexual abuse (Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, 2017a).
Raine and Kent (2019) discuss the unique characteristics of grooming in religious settings, noting that alongside typical grooming characteristics such as desensitisation to increasingly sexualised activity, exposure to illicit material and substances, establishment of friendships with families, inducements and coercion, a cluster of unique religious attributes exist, including “obedience, patriarchy, claims of divine justification, appeals to God and salvational outcomes, the use of familial language, and closed communities”.
A report analysing claims of sexual abuse made with respect to Catholic Church institutions in Australia was released by The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2017. This report identified 1,880 alleged perpetrators along with 4,444 victims who came forward to report an incident within the Catholic Church between 1980 and 2015. Ninety per cent of the alleged offenders were men — with the highest number acting as religious brothers, followed by priests and lay people associated with the Church. Victims were an average age of 10.5 for girls and 11.6 for boys, with an average 33 years between the alleged abuse and official complaint (Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, 2017b).
The analysis of sexual abuse claims relating to the Catholic Church compiled data from a survey of 75 Catholic Church authorities — with priest members — and 10 Catholic orders whose members are religious brothers and sisters. It classed 7% of priests over that period of time as alleged perpetrators of sexual abuse. The St John of God Brothers had the highest proportion of religious brothers who were classed as alleged perpetrators (40.4%) followed by Christian Brothers (22%), Salesians of Don Bosco (21.9%) and Marist Brothers (20.4%). The highest proportion of alleged perpetrators who were Catholic priests came from the Benedictine Community of New Norcia (21.5%) along with the Salesians of Don Bosco (17.2%) and Marist Fathers (13.9%) (Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, 2017b).
A report analysing claims of sexual abuse made with respect to Anglican Church institutions in Australia was also released by The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2017. This report identified 569 alleged perpetrators along with 1,085 victims who came forward to report an incident within the Anglican Church between 1980 and 2015. Of all alleged perpetrators, 94% were male, 247 were ordained clergy (43% of all known alleged perpetrators), and 285 were lay people (50% of all known alleged perpetrators). Victims were an average age of approximately 11 years and this did not vary for the gender of the complainant. The average time between the first alleged incident date and the date the complaint was received was 29 years (Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, 2017c).
The most comprehensive study of child sexual abuse in the US Catholic Church comes from an earlier study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which found that 4% of all priests who had served from 1950 to 2002 were subject to allegations of child sexual abuse (John Jay College, 2004, Terry, 2008, cited in Parkinson, 2014).
A study examining the personnel files of more than 38,000 Catholic Priests and clergy within the German Catholic Church across the period 1946 – 2014 found that 4.4% of all clerics were alleged to have committed sexual abuse, and 3,677 children or adolescents were identified as victims (Dressing, Dolling, Herman, et al., 2021). More than 80% of victims in the German sample suffered contact abuse. The seriousness of the offences as compared to the US John Jay study appeared even more severe, with 25.7% of offences involving penile penetration or attempt (Dressing, et al., 2021).
While the majority of research on child sexual abuse in religious organisations has focused on the Catholic Church, Denney and colleagues (2018) conducted a study examining characteristics of abuse cases occurring in Protestant church congregations across the United States. This study found that the majority of cases (98%) involved male perpetrators, and that the majority of offences were contact offences that occurred on church premises or at the offender’s home. Additionally, most offenders were found to be white pastors or youth ministers who were approximately 40 years in age (Denney, Kerley & Gross, 2018).
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that no case of child sexual abuse within the Christian Congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses (out of 1066 cases since 1950) was reported to secular authorities by the congregational authorities, even though in more than 50% of cases, the accused had confessed to committing sexual abuse (RCA, 2016, cited in Rashid & Barron, 2022).
A submission to the Victorian Parliament’s Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations gives some insight into the extent of offending in Australian Catholic churches (Cahill, 2012, cited in Parkinson, 2014). This submission identified 378 priests who graduated from a Melbourne seminary and who were ordained between 1940 and 1966. Of these 378 priests, 14 (3.7%) were convicted of sex offences against children and after their deaths, another four were acknowledged by church authorities to have abused children. In total therefore, 18 priests or 4.76% of the 378 ordained were identified as having sexually abused children. Among a later cohort, four (5.41%) of the 74 priests ordained between 1968 and 1971 from that same seminary had been convicted of sex offences against children (Cahill, 2012, cited in Parkinson, 2014).
While sex offenders are found in all denominations, there is little research evidence concerning child sexual abuse by priests or ministers in religious institutions other than the Catholic Church (Parkinson, 2014). One study of child sexual abuse in the Anglican church of Australia is the only substantial Australian study of sexual abuse in a Protestant denomination. This archival study of 23 dioceses found 191 cases of reported child sexual abuse made by 180 complainants since 1990, against 135 alleged perpetrators. Of these 135 alleged offenders, 78 (58%) were clergy; most other alleged offenders were youth workers. While this study was unable to indicate the exact proportion of Anglican clergy who had been accused of child sexual abuse, the authors estimated that the 78 represented a very small proportion of Anglican clergy (below 1%) (Parkinson, Oates & Jayakody, 2012).
Evidence given by Victoria Police to the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations suggested that there is a higher incidence of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church compared with other denominations. The Victorian police recorded all child sexual abuse convictions in Victoria that involved religious organisations for the period 1956-2012 and found that of the victims, 370 were abused in the Catholic Church, 37 in the Anglican Church, 36 in the Salvation Army and 18 involving Judaism. That the number of victims in the Catholic Church was ten times higher than the number in the Anglican Church was only partly explained by the greater size of the Catholic Church in Melbourne (Victoria Police, 2012, cited in Parkinson, 2014).
Most victims of child sexual abuse in religious organisations are male, which is the opposite of patterns seen in the general population (Parkinson, 2014). For example, the John Jay college study of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church of the US found that 81% of victims were male, Victoria Police reported that 87% of the 370 victims of abuse in the Catholic Church during 1956 – 2012 were male, and 76% of complainants alleging sexual abuse in the Anglican Church since 1990 were male (John Jay College, 2004, Victoria Police, 2012, & Parkinson et al., 2012, cited in Parkinson, 2014).
In a review paper on clergy perpetrated child sexual abuse, Astbury (2013) describes that in his evidence to the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations, the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne stated that church records revealed 3.375% (59/1,748) priests in Melbourne had offended, a rate which was similar to the perpetration rate reported in the John Jay College study in the US (Astbury, 2013).
Astbury, J. (2013). Child sexual abuse in the general community and clergy-perpetrated child sexual abuse: A review paper prepared for the Australian Psychological Society to inform an APS response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child sexual abuse. Melbourne: Australian Psychological Society.
Denney, A.S., Kerley, K.R., & Gross, N.G. (2018). Child sexual abuse in Protestant Christian congregations: A descriptive analysis of offense and offender characteristics. Religions, 9(1), 27.
Dressing, H., Dolling, D., Hermann, D., Kruse, A., Schmitt, E., Bannenberg, B., et al. (2021). Child sexual abuse by Catholic Priests, Deacons and male members of the religious orders in the authority of the German Bishops’ Conference 1946-2014. Sexual Abuse, 33(3), 274-294.
Parkinson, P. (2014). Child sexual abuse and the churches: A story of moral failure? Current Issues in Criminal Justice, 26(1): 119-138.
Parkinson, P., Oates, R.K., & Jayakody, A.A. (2012). Child sexual abuse in the Anglican church of Australia. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 21, 553-570.
Raine, S., & Kent, S.A. (2019). The grooming of children for sexual abuse in religious settings: Unique characteristics and select case studies. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 48, 180-189.
Rashid, F., & Barron, I. (2022). Jehovah’s witnesses response to child sexual abuse: a critique of organisational behaviour and management policies (1989–2020). Journal of Sexual Aggression, DOI: 10.1080/13552600.2021.2018513
Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2017a). Final report, Volume 16: Religious Institutions. Sydney: Commonwealth of Australia.
Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2017b). Analysis of claims of child sexual abuse made with respect to Catholic Church institutions in Australia. Sydney: Commonwealth of Australia.
Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2017c). Analysis of claims of child sexual abuse received by Anglican Church Dioceses in Australia. Sydney: Commonwealth of Australia.