The Catholic Church's institutions, schools and parishes gave perpetrators the opportunity to exploit vulnerable children in their care for decades and its early response to child abuse in its ranks "continued to conceal rather than expose criminal child abuse in the organisation", a Victorian parliamentary report has found.
Betrayal of Trust, the report of the Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Non-Government Organisations by Parliament's Family and Community Development Committee, said there had been "substantial criminal child abuse" in the Church over a long period of time, perpetrated by priests and other members of religious orders in Victoria.
"A culture existed in religious organisations that allowed for the occurrence of systemic criminal child abuse," it said.
"The initial formal response to criminal child abuse that the Catholic Church in Victoria and in Australia more broadly adopted in the early 1990s was influenced by its previous approach. The response continued to conceal rather than expose criminal child abuse in the organisation.
"There has been a substantial body of credible evidence presented to the Inquiry and ultimately concessions made by senior representatives of religious bodies, including the Catholic Church, that they had taken steps with the direct objective of concealing wrongdoing."
The report made recommendations in areas such as criminal law, easier access to the civil justice system, greater independent monitoring and scrutiny of organisations, and improved prevention and processes. Recommendations also included making failure to report to police or to conceal knowledge of the suspected criminal abuse of children an offence; making it a criminal offence for people in authority to knowingly put a child at risk; that "grooming" of children, including through conduct directed at family members of an intended victim of child sexual activity, be a criminal offence; that criminal child abuse be excluded from the statute of limitations; and that organisations such as the Church be held accountable for their legal duty to protect children from criminal abuse.
Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne said the Church's response to abuse, mainly committed between 1960 and 1985, had been "indefensible". He said the Church supported the Inquiry's key recommendations.
"The Committee’s report is rightly called Betrayal of Trust," Archbishop Hart said.
"I have spoken before about this betrayal and the irreparable damage it has caused.
"It is the worst betrayal of trust in my lifetime in the Catholic Church," he said.
The report is the first of three major inquiries into child sexual abuse in Australia in which the Church is a focus. In New South Wales, Ms Margaret Cunneen, Senior Counsel, is due to report on matters relating to the police investigation of certain child sexual abuse allegations in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle by 28 February 2014, while the biggest inquiry of all, the national Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, is to publish an interim report by 30 June 2014 and a final report by the end of 2015.