The Catholic Church in Australia is significantly lagging behind other comparable nations in dealing with child abuse claims and developing protocols to safeguard children, according to a new RMIT University report.
The Melbourne-based institution published a five-year research project that examined 26 royal commissions, as well as police investigations, government inquiries and studies from across the world.
Study authors Professor Desmond Cahill and Dr Peter Wilkinson acknowledged some progress had been made in Australia, especially among church-run academic institutions, but the country still has a long way to go.
"Any suggestion that the Catholic Church in Australia has led the way in child protection is not sustainable in [the] face of the initiatives in other countries, nor has there been much accountability or evaluation in Australia," they stated.
Specific shortcomings highlighted in the study include a lack of training to church employees regarding creating safe environments. The study also emphasised a failure to appoint representatives who are responsible for safeguarding kids at each parish.
According to the data, the rate of offending among Catholic priests is between 5.5 and 8.5 per cent in Australia.
However, this figure rises dramatically, reaching between 15 and 40 per cent for religious brothers supervising or teaching vulnerable children in residential care facilities.
The RMIT report said forcing priests to remain celibate has been a significant contributing factor to child abuse. Much of the research highlighted in the study described celibacy as a "serious risk issue" for child abuse, although the authors fell short of saying it was the primary cause.
"It would seem that celibacy is the major precipitating risk factor for child sexual abuse when combined with other risk factors," said study authors Professor Desmond Cahill and Dr Peter Wilkinson. Other problems included loneliness and a lack of emotional intimacy with others among priests.
Tellingly, rates of child abuse were much lower in eastern rite Catholic churches, which allow their priests to marry and become fathers.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse recently called for priests to face criminal charges if they fail to report incidents of abuse they hear in confession.
However, the recommendation caused uproar. The Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Denis Hart, said he would rather risk going to jail than contravene the sanctity of religious confession.
Professor Cahill, talking to Guardian Australia, said priests should report child abuse if the victim comes forward in confession. Meanwhile, he argued it would be more practical to encourage perpetrators to hand themselves in to law enforcement as a form of repentance.
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