Australian archbishop: ‘As Catholics we hang our heads in shame’

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher said he was ashamed and humiliated by revelations that 7 percent of Australia’s Roman Catholic clergy may have abused children between 1950 and 2010.

The alarming figure was presented by the church to an Australian inquiry looking into institutional sex abuse.

“The church is sorry and I am sorry for past failures that left so many so damaged,” Fisher said. “I know that many of our priests, religious and lay faithful feel the same,” Fisher said. “As Catholics we hang our heads in shame.”

The Vatican press office distributed a link to Fisher’s statement on Monday (Feb. 6) and declined to make any further comment.

Over 4,440 Australians claim to have been victims of church abuse between 1980 and 2015, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was told.

“To my shame and sadness it would seem that Australia-wide as many as 384 Catholic diocesan priests, 188 religious priests, 597 religious brothers and 96 religious sisters have had claims of child sexual abuse made against them since 1950,” he said.

“Claims have also been made against 543 lay church workers and another 72 whose religious status is unknown.”

Gail Furness, the main lawyer assisting the commission in Sydney, said more than 1,000 Catholic institutions across Australia were identified in claims of sexual abuse, with a total of 1,880 alleged perpetrators between 1980 and 2015.

Fisher said while the overwhelming number of incidents occurred between the 1950s and 1970s, the church is not complacent about child safety. He vowed to “work towards a culture of greater transparency, accountability and safety for all children.”

“(W)e recognize our responsibility to ensure that all measures are in place to prevent this happening again,” he said. “We also recognize that there are abuse victims who are yet to come forward and perhaps never will.”

The commission, set up in 2013, is investigating allegations of sexual and physical abuse across dozens of institutions, including schools, sports clubs and several religious organizations.

Its latest findings provide further evidence of a global epidemic of sex abuse within the church after widespread abuse was reported in the U.S., Ireland, Brazil, Germany, and elsewhere.

Last year, Cardinal George Pell, who was Australia’s most senior Catholic before becoming Pope Francis’ top economic adviser, was questioned by the commission by video from Rome about how much he knew about alleged pedophile priests and how church authorities had responded to allegations of child sex abuse when he was a senior cleric in Australia.

Public prosecutors in Australia are also reviewing multiple allegations that Pell abused several boys between 1978-2001 while he was a priest in the small town of Ballarat and later as archbishop of Melbourne.

The 75-year-old cardinal has strenuously denied the allegations.

Pope Francis has spoken out several times against clerical sexual abuse and declared “zero tolerance” for clerical abuse in December.

In 2015 Francis set up a Vatican commission, including two victims, to protect minors and advise local churches on how to prevent abuse. He also approved a Vatican tribunal to judge bishops accused of covering up sexual abuse or failing to prevent it.