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National Catholic Reporter ®

Global Perspectives
From our Rome Bureau


Five Vatican offices will review new charter

American zero tolerance policy headed for trouble in Rome, sources say

Cardinal's 'persecution' remarks play to mixed reviews in Europe

Posted Friday, June 14, 2002
Number 2

Church in Australia also struggles with sex abuse scandal


A widening sexual abuse crisis within the country’s Catholic church has generated a media uproar, as senior bishops are accused of cover-ups and lies. Tough bishops’ conference policies on sex abuse, unveiled to much fanfare years ago, are revealed to have been more honored in the breach than the observance.

If the scenario sounds familiar, the setting may not be. The country described above is not the United States, but Australia.

The “land down under” has always been a mirror image of the Anglo-Saxon portion of the northern hemisphere, and that identity has been on display again in recent weeks, as the world’s third largest English-speaking Catholic community faces a sexual abuse crisis with strong parallels to the American situation.

Underscoring the connection, the U.S. bishops invited one of their Australian counterparts, Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, to join them in Dallas. Known as “the healing bishop” for his deft handling of a spate of sex abuse scandals in his former diocese of Wollongong, Wilson is the first Australian prelate ever invited to address the U.S. conference. A more difficult debut could scarcely be imagined.

At least one cannot accuse Wilson of underestimating the severity of the problem. In April he gave an address in which he said, “I believe we are dealing with a firestorm that, unless it's brought under control and dealt with, is going to be really destructive, perhaps the greatest ever destruction of the church in western civilization.”

The last few weeks in Australia have probably done little to change Wilson’s mind.

As in the United States, the Australian church has experienced several waves of revelations about sexual abuse in the late 1980s. Since then, some 50 priests and brothers have been sentenced for sexual offenses. In 1993, about 200 former residents of Australian schools run by the Christian Brothers, an Irish teaching order known for its harsh discipline, filed suit alleging they were repeatedly raped and beaten by brothers. The Catholic church in 1996 settled out of court for $2.6 million, a deal that left victims with $2,000 to $7,500 each.

The resulting furor led to adoption of a set of national standards for handling sexual abuse cases by the Australian bishops’ conference, called Towards Healing. The document was widely praised internationally for its compassionate tone towards victims, as well as its principles of handling complaints by independent review boards and transparency throughout the process.

A revision in 2000 made clear that victims were not to be constrained to secrecy as a condition of getting help from the church. (The text is on-line at .

When the report first appeared, one bishop publicly broke ranks with the conference, then-Archbishop of Melbourne George Pell, who developed his own diocesan approach. Pell, who has since gone on to become archbishop if Sydney and is likely to be made a cardinal when John Paul II next holds a consistory, nevertheless vowed that his program would uphold more or less the same principles. The Jesuits in Australia also adopted their own rules.

In recent weeks, the sexual abuse crisis has broken open anew, this time over revelations that victims have indeed been required to maintain secrecy in settlements negotiated by church lawyers, even after the provisions of Towards Healing supposedly took effect.

The most spectacular claim to date has been that of a disabled woman, who said she became pregnant after being raped by a Catholic priest and was forced to sign a secrecy clause before the church would pay her the equivalent of $8,700.

Pell has come in for especially harsh media attention, since he first vowed that victims had not been asked to sign such confidentiality clauses, but was later forced to backtrack when it emerged that several victims had been requested to do just that.

On June 2, an Australian TV program called “60 Minutes” painted Pell in especially negative hues, alleging that he had attempted to buy the silence in 1993 of a sex abuse victim. “What will it take to keep you quiet?” Pell allegedly asked.

The charge suffered a setback, however, when it emerged that the victim had given a different account of events to a gay magazine in Melbourne in 1997.

The “60 Minutes” program also suggested that Pell had known about the sexual abuse carried out by an Australian priest and personal friend named Gerald Ridsdale but failed to intervene. The two men come from the same home town, went to the same seminary, and shared a house in 1973. In that year, the TV program asserted, Ridsdale raped several boys aged between 8 and 11.

Pell, known as a staunch doctrinal conservative, has emphatically denied the charge, and even some Australian Catholics who have chafed under his leadership style seem to believe him.

“Pell has been rather unfairly treated. He has actually been quite proactive on this issue,” said Paul Collins, a former Sacred Heart priest. Collins, a progressive church historian, left his religious order under the weight of a Vatican investigation that many Australians believe was instigated by Pell.

“The bishops here have generally been a lot more proactive than their colleagues in the United States,” Collins told NCR.

Nevertheless, a spokesperson for the Australian bishops’ conference had to ruefully admit that church lawyers had never been informed of the provisions of Towards Healing governing confidentiality agreements.

Pell and Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart took out newspaper advertisements in early June apologizing to victims for the “evil of sexual abuse” by clergy, but insisted the church had never tried to silence victims - a statement that in light of later admissions now seems disingenuous.

A spokesperson for a victims advocacy group called Broken Rites estimates that there could be in excess of 1,000 victims who have received payments, and in order to get that payment, signed a silence clause.

If nothing else, Australian observers say, the furor down under makes one point clear: Sexual abuse and its repercussions with the Catholic church is obviously not just an “American problem.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Vatican correspondent. His e-mail address is