Sins of the Father: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church and the Royal Commission of Inquiry

Georgia Osmond

As part of its first 100 days, the government promised that it would look into historical instances of abuse in state care. This led to the creation of the Royal Commission into Historical Abuse in State Care in February of this year.[1] As part of the public consultation process, there were requests for the inclusion of the church in the scope of the Inquiry. However, the Right Honourable Sir Anand Satyanand, the chair of the Inquiry, has stated that religious institutions such as the church do not fit within the scope of the Inquiry, as they are not a system controlled or run by the state. In a context where priests and high-ranking leaders within the Catholic Church globally are being revealed as paedophiles or sexual abusers, an inquiry of some form should take place to look into the shocking rates of sexual assault within religious institutions.

Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care

The Human Rights Commission was one of the original groups that called for a public inquiry into abuse in state care to take place, and  this was also recommended by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.[2] Following the Labour government’s promise to begin an inquiry into abuse in state care within its first 100 days in office, Cabinet agreed to establish an inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2013.[3] The Department of Internal Affairs was held responsible for the administration of the inquiry, and Sir Anand Satyanand was elected as the chair of the inquiry.[4] Once the Inquiries (Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care) Order 2018 came into effect, the inquiry was formally established.[5] From February of this year over three months, public consultations were to take place to assist in the creation of the Terms of Reference, as well as determining the purpose, scope and implementation of the inquiry.[6] After this, the revised Terms of Reference were to be given to the government for approval before the inquiry could actually begin. The aim was to have the giving and receiving of evidence begin mid-late 2018, in order for the inquiry to be completed within the term of this parliament.[7]The principles of the Inquiry are to be victim and survivor-focused, with a whanau-centred view, avoiding a legalistic approach to the inquiry.[8]

Terms of Reference

The Terms of Reference of the Royal Commission set out the areas that will be covered within the inquiry. The scope of the inquiry was to focus on:

  1. The nature and extent of the abuse in state care;
  2. Impact of the abuse on individuals, families, and communities, including the long-term and generational impacts it may have;
  3. The differential impacts that could be felt by certain groups, including Māori, LGBTQ+ people, disabled people, and those with mental health issues;
  4. Factors that caused or contributed to the abuse, especially any systemic factors that could be identified;
  5. General findings that shaped current practices;
  6. The current settings available to prevent and respond to abuse; and
  7. The redress processes in place that claimants can use.[9]

The focus of the inquiry was to be completely on those that had been in state care. For the purposes of the inquiry, ‘state care’ was defined as situations where the state had direct or indirect care for the individual concerned. This includes child welfare and youth justice placements or people placed into care in health, disability or special education facilities.[10] Assumption of responsibility by the state could also be present in situations where the state had made decisions for a person, where a court order was implemented, or where the placement in state care was voluntary or done with consent.[11] Excluded from the definition of state care are prisons, former penal institutions, general hospital admissions and schools. A person could only apply to be included within the scope of the inquiry if they were in state care at the time the abuse occurred.[12]Even though the Terms of Reference were submitted to the Internal Affairs Minister Tracey Martin, there has been no further movement on the Inquiry since May.[13] This has led to a general feeling of uncertainty as to whether the Inquiry will actually take place, and even if it does take place, whether it will be completed within the term of this Parliament.Despite this, there has been a desire from church leaders to have the church included within the definition of ‘state care’, enabling people who have been the victims of sexual abuse at the hands of priests and other church members to have their stories heard and their experiences shared.

Should the Church be included in the inquiry?

Sir Satyanand has been opposed to the inclusion of the church within the definition of ‘state care’, preferring to leave them out of the inquiry’s scope. This is because the state has never had control over church activities, and Sir Satyanand himself has suggested that the church should hold their own inquiry using their own resources.[14]Since the announcement of the inquiry, there has been a desire from some members of the church to have it included within the scope of the inquiry. Catholic Bishop Patrick Dunn and Sister Katrina Fabish sent letters to the Prime Minister, the Chair of the commission, and the children’s minister to request that the church be included within the inquiry.[15] They argued that no individual should be denied the ability to make a submission to the inquiry, and to not be able to share their experiences,[16] especially as the inquiry does not have the ability to hold someone liable for their actions. Michelle Mulvihill, a psychologist who contributed to Australia’s Royal Commission into institutional sexual abuse, has found that most children are sexually abused within faith-based institutions, and that on this basis the scope of New Zealand’s inquiry should be broadened to include churches.[17] Father Tom Doyle, known for authoring a report on paedophilia in the church in 1985 (documented in the 2015 film Spotlight) has also claimed that the Royal Commission Inquiry that is to be undertaken would only be limiting itself if it did not include churches and other religious institutions.[18] It has also become apparent, both in New Zealand and globally, that the church has become adept at covering up instances of sexual assault, providing proof that an independent inquiry run by the church would not provide the truth.Over the past year, new cases and evidence of sexual abuse at the hands of priests and other religious leaders within New Zealand have come to light. The revelation of sexual abuse at the hands of Father Magnus Murray in Dunedin is just one example of this. In 2003, Murray admitted to 10 charges of offending towards 4 boys in Dunedin from the years 1958-1972. He was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment, but served less than 3 years of his sentence.[19] It has recently been revealed that, despite being known to have preyed on children, especially boys, Murray was never stripped of his title, but instead moved around to different parishes, even moving to Australia for a brief period. In this time, however, he continued his sexual abuse, in particular a young woman who he groomed for several years before beginning a sexual relationship when she was in her early 20s.[20] Upon returning to New Zealand in 1976, Murray continued his behaviour until his retirement in 1990. While the church was aware in some form of his behaviour of abuse, he was never held to account for his behaviour, though it was suggested by the Ngaruawahia police that they had had an interest in arresting him.[21]Michael Shirres is another example within New Zealand of a priest who was able to sexually abuse young children without facing the consequences of his actions. Revealed as a self-confessed paedophile by the New Zealand Herald in July of this year,[22] Shirres sexually abused a young girl and was also accused of abusing another young girl and her sister in 1966.[23] Shirres eventually faced some type of punishment for his crimes, being demoted from a priest to a brother in 1994 and placed in the Safe Network program.[24]The number of sexual assault survivors at the hands of priests and other religious members continues to grow, and as this number grows it only makes sense to perhaps include these survivors within the scope of the inquiry.

The global context

The Catholic Church globally is coming under fire for the cover up of years of sexual abuse at the hands of priests. In America, a grand jury under the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found 300 priests were guilty of sexually abusing over 1000 children over a period of 70 years in August of this year.[25] Examples included a priest impregnating a young girl and assisting her in obtaining an abortion, and a priest confessing to oral and anal rape on at least 15 boys.[26] The church was found to have covered up this abuse in what was called a “playbook for concealing the truth” by the FBI.[27] In another unrelated event, Theodore McCarrick, the former Archbishop of Washington DC, stepped down from his role after sexual abuse accusations were levelled against him.[28]In Australia, a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was held in 2017. Part of this inquiry focused on the role of religious institutions in sexual abuse, and made some important findings. These included:

  1. Men were the majority of alleged perpetrators in religious institutions;[29]
  2. 67% of perpetrators in the Catholic church were priests or religious brothers or sisters;[30]
  3. 50% of perpetrators in the Anglican church were lay people, and 43% were part of the ordained clergy;[31]
  4. There were 2489 reported survivors of sexual abuse in the Catholic church, and 594 reported survivors in the Anglican church.[32]

The response from the Vatican has been varied. In August of this year, Pope Francis wrote a “Letter to God” addressing the failures of dealing with abuse and asking for forgiveness. This was the first time a Pope had directly addressed the Catholic population on sexual abuse.[33] However, a month later, the Pope made the bold claim in one of his homilies that the devil was behind the cover-up of sexual abuse.[34] It is believed he was referring to the Theodore McCarrick scandal, where the Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano claimed Pope Francis had lifted sanctions against McCarrick during the reign of Benedict XVI, though the Pope has denied these claims.[35]The attitudes of the Catholic Church towards sexual abuse allegations have been dubious, and reflect the long-held notion that the church, and other religious instructions, will do whatever they can to protect their own. It is understandable that the government wants to restrict the scope of the Royal Commission Inquiry, in order to produce the thorough inquiry it can. However, the past behaviour of the Catholic Church in covering up the illegal acts of its members suggests that perhaps it is necessary, for the benefit of survivors who want closure and justice, for religious institutions to be included within the scope of New Zealand’s inquiry.—The views expressed in the posts and comments of this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Equal Justice Project. They should be understood as the personal opinions of the author. No information on this blog will be understood as official. The Equal Justice Project makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. The Equal Justice Project will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information nor for the availability of this information.Featured image source:[1] Ministry of Social Development “Q&A for the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care” July 2018 at 3.[2] Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care “Draft Terms of Reference” at 1.[3] Royal Commission, above n 1, at 3.[4] At 3.[5] At 3.[6] At 5.[7] At 4.[8] Royal Commission, above n 2, at 3-4.[9] At 1-2.[10] Royal Commission, above n 2, at 6.[11] At 6.[12] Royal Commission, above n 2, at 3.[13] Laura Dooney “State Abuse Inquiry: ‘They’ve lost hope because it’s taken so long’” Radio New Zealand (Online ed, Auckland, 6 September 2018).[14] Interview with Right Hon Sir Anand Satyanand, Chair of the Royal Commission of Inquiry (Mike Wesley-Smith, Newshub, TV3, 24 April 2018).[15] Phil Pennington “Churches Push for Inclusion in Royal Commission into Abuse” Radio New Zealand (Online ed, Auckland, 26 March 2018).[16] Pennington, above n 15.[17] “Calls to Include Faith Institutions in Abuse Investigations” Radio New Zealand (Online ed, Auckland, 12 January 2018).[18] Phil Pennington “Vatican will be Terrified of State Inquiry, Whistleblower Says” Radio New Zealand (Online ed, Auckland, 8 March 2018).[19] Chris Morris “Dark Secret: Kiwi Priest’s Victims Tell of Ruined Lives” New Zealand Herald (Online ed, Auckland, 1 August 2018).[20] Morris, above n 19.[21] Morris, above n 19.[22] Mick Hall “The Fallen Father: Paedophile Catholic Priest Michael Shirres ‘Abused Children for Decades’” New Zealand Herald (Online ed, Auckland, 25 July 2018).[23] Mick Hall “Catholic Church Knew of Abuse Claims Against Paedophile Priest Michael Shirres for 28 Years” New Zealand Herald (Online ed, Auckland, 29 August 2018).[24] Hall, above n 22.[25] Amanda Holpuch “More Than 300 Pennsylvania Priests Abused 1000 Children Over Decades, Report Says” The Guardian (online ed, 14 August 2018).[26] Holpuch, above n 25.[27] Daniel Burke and Susannah Cullinane “Report Details Sexual Abuse By More Than 300 Priests in Pennsylvania’s Catholic Church” CNN (Online ed, 16 August 2018).[28] “Pope Francis Condemns Child Sex Abuse and Church Cover Ups” BBC (Online ed, 20 August 2018).[29] Commonwealth of Australia “Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse Final Report: Volume 2, Nature and Cause” (2017) at 95.[30] At 100.[31] At 100.[32] At 111.[33] Above n 28.[34] “The Pope Suggests the Devil is Behind Sex Abuse Cover-Up Scandal” New Zealand Herald (Online ed, Auckland, 13 September 2018).[35] Above n 34.