SYDNEY: A royal commission investigating the sexual abuse of children in Australia found Friday that the nation was gripped by an epidemic dating back decades, with tens of thousands of children sexually abused in schools, religious organizations and other institutions.
The commission, the highest form of investigation in Australia, urged government action on its 189 recommendations, including the establishment of a new National Office for Child Safety and penalties for those who suspect abuse and fail to alert the police, including priests who hear about abuse in confessionals. It also urged Australia’s Roman Catholic leadership to press Rome to end mandatory celibacy for priests.
“Tens of thousands of children have been sexually abused in many Australian institutions,” said the report, which was particularly critical of Catholic organizations. “We will never know the true number. Whatever the number, it is a national tragedy, perpetrated over generations within many of our most trusted institutions.”
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said all Australians should read the report.
“I want to thank and honor the courage of the survivors and their families who’ve told, often for the first time, the dreadful stories of abuse that they received from people who actually owed them love and protection,” Mr. Turnbull said.
The commission’s chairman, Justice Peter McClellan, said that the panel heard from more than 1,000 witnesses over nearly 15 months in assessing the magnitude of the abuse.
“It is not a case of a few rotten apples,” the report said. “Society’s major institutions have seriously failed. In many cases those failings have been exacerbated by a manifestly inadequate response to the abused person. The problems have been so widespread, and the nature of the abuse so heinous, that it is difficult to comprehend.”
Australia created the commission in 2012 to investigate decades of sexual abuse in religious institutions, schools and other establishments — the only country in the world so far to initiate such a sweeping government-led inquiry. More than 4,000 institutions have been implicated in abuse allegations, the commission found.
Australian government investigators identified 4,444 victims of abuse and at least 1,880 suspected abusers from 1980 to 2015. Most of those suspected of abuse were Catholic priests and religious brothers. The report released Friday said 62 percent of the survivors who told the commission they were abused in religious institutions were abused in a Catholic facility.
Responding to the findings, Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne offered “our unconditional apology for this suffering and a commitment to ensuring justice for those affected.”
He said many of the panel’s recommendations would have a significant impact on the way the Catholic Church operates in Australia.
“Central to this Royal Commission is the painful truth that so many children were abused, trust was destroyed and innocence lost,” the archbishop said. “They are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters — this should never have happened. As a bishop I express my deepest sorrow.”
The inquiry, which cost the Australian government 373 million Australian dollars, or $286 million, was unmatched in its scope in examining a scandal that has shaken the Roman Catholic hierarchy worldwide.