Huge progress for child protection in churches, but more still needed: Parkinson


Patrick Parkinson will deliver the Smith Lecture this week in Sydney

Patrick Parkinson is a professor of law at the University of Sydney and a specialist in family law, child protection and the law of equity and trusts. His books include Child Sexual Abuse and the Churches (2nd ed, 2003) and he has worked extensively with churches on child safety issues. Professor Parkinson is delivering the annual Smith Lecture this week (24 October) on the topic Child Sexual Abuse and the Churches: A story of moral failure? 

Eternity spoke with Professor Parkinson about the topic this week.

Eternity: Without giving too much away, could you tell us about what you’ll be saying in the Smith Lecture.

Professor Parkinson: It’s a very difficult topic to address. What I’ll be saying is that child sexual abuse happens in all churches, in all faith communities and in all walks of life. That’s a given. Churches are particularly vulnerable because of the extent to which they engage in work with children: Sunday schools, youth clubs, camps, girls’ brigade, boys’ brigade. The Church plays a very central role in terms of extra-curricular activities for children; and so the opportunities for sexual abuse are much greater than most other contexts.

If you think about the school situation, where the teacher is in a classroom with thirty kids, there is not much opportunity to sexually abuse a child, quite frankly; and opportunity is the key to all of this. Unfortunately the Church—due to the extent of the work it does—has in the past offered far more opportunity for adults to be alone with children than would be the case in a day-school setting.

The other danger is in child protection by forms—the idea that if you get people to sign forms that they’ve never abused a child or get them to fill out application forms for helping out in crèche, that somehow that protects children. It doesn’t.

The other aspect of it—which is why the churches are in the headlines at the moment—is that in the past they provided a great deal of the care for children in need. A lot of the abuse has occurred in institutional settings: boarding schools, orphanages, children’s homes. It is precisely because the Church has been in the vanguard of welfare work, that the historic legacy in terms of sexual abuse is particularly large.

E: So in some ways the strengths of dealing with children, and, in a Christian sense, welcoming children, has meant more opportunities to deal with children in situations where they might not be protected.

PP: That’s exactly right. I wrote a book many years ago called Child Sexual Abuse and the Churches. One of the things that I said back in 1997 is that Christians were too naive and trusting. I don’t mean that in a negative or pejorative sense, but there was a lot of naivety around these things.

The positive aspect is that there was also a great deal of trust, which is normally a good thing in a community; but that created opportunities for exploitation. If you take the paradigm example of child sex abuse and churches which is the Catholic priest and the teenage boy: Catholic parents would often just be thrilled and delighted if the Catholic priest took an interest in their troubled son. Parents would probably have thought twice about the 27 year old curate that takes an interest in their 15-year-old daughter and wants to be alone with her the whole time. Even the most naive of parents might find that troubling; but the priest or youth pastor getting involved with the 15 year old boy? That can be healthy. And of course, many of those inclined to abuse children just had a field day, quite frankly, with that trust.

E: It is a funny aspect of child abuse being so large in the public eye – it can sometimes feel like you should be paranoid about the prospect. How should Christians go about this without saying that no person anywhere can show any kind of affection for any child?

It’s important to focus on that mundane level concerning physical safety, where the most common risks are. In that context you can also explain the need to be concerned about sexual predators. You can’t focus just on the most extreme end of the child safety spectrum.

PP: I think that there are two dangers: one is overreaction. The second is child protection by forms.

Let me explain. The first problem—that of overreaction—is that we hold back from showing, especially to younger children, the normal affection that they need. If the little kid falls over in the playground and grazes her knee, you give her a cuddle; but if you are male, you probably don’t anymore. There is a loss in that.

The overreaction is in treating such innocent things as problematic, when in reality, the dangers of sexual abuse come from private and secret interactions with children. Anything which is in public tends not to be problematic.

The other danger is in child protection by forms—the idea that if you get people to sign forms that they’ve never abused a child or get them to fill out application forms for helping out in crèche, that somehow that protects children. It doesn’t.

What protects children above anything else is awareness and training; and as I’ve been saying for many years now: worry about the youth group. Don’t worry about the crèche. Firstly, sexual abuse of very little children is extremely unusual. Secondly, if you have basic rules about the crèche, like always having two people there, any risk is minimised. Such rules make sense for all sorts of reasons when you’re dealing with babies and infants.

The risks are particularly in the youth group, which is where most sexual abuse occurs – abuse of kids in upper primary and early high school years. The risks are also in other situations where there are natural opportunities for adults to be alone with children or teenagers. You have got to minimise those opportunities, and if it means difficulties about taking kids home in a car after youth group, that’s just what you’ve got to wear to create a child-safe environment.

E: It’s been relatively on the rise in terms of awareness: what’s your feeling about how Christian churches are going in terms of child protection and putting these things in place?

PP: There’s been a huge quantum leap in the last fifteen years. I have published two editions of that book, Child Sexual Abuse and the Churches. Just before the first edition was released, ABC TV News got hold of the story, and went to the New South Wales Council of Churches for a comment. The Council put out a press release, saying words to the effect that this was just scandal-mongering by some unknown author trying to make money. There were no problems in the churches. Neither the media officer who wrote that press release, nor the head of the NSW Council of Churches in whose name it went out, had even seen the book. That kind of attitude was not untypical back in the mid-1990s.

What can be said is that it is now harder to sexually abuse a child in this country than at any stage in history.

I think that, in NSW at least, the Wood Royal Commission did a lot of good in confronting everybody – the police, the churches, state government departments – with these issues. Since 1997, there have been huge steps forward; but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of problems still. I worry about the small non-denominational churches, because they do not have the benefit of institutionally-provided training or pressure to deal with these issues. So I think some independent evangelical churches are still particularly vulnerable.

Some of the smaller dioceses in the Anglican Church have also been slower to respond to this issue than the larger ones. There are resource pressures which I understand. Big dioceses like the Anglican Archdioceses of Sydney and Melbourne have been much more proactive in this area.

E: They’re the ones that have had the resources to do comprehensive training and awareness.

PP: I think so. If you are a leader of a diocese in the back of Burke, you may struggle to find ministers for your churches, let alone to ensure that volunteers in children’s programs undergo systematic child protection training.

One of the remedies for that is for small local churches to give up on the idea that they have to have their own youth group. There is a lot of merit in local churches in a suburb or town getting together amongst themselves to support one strong youth ministry at whatever church may be fortunate to have it. You don’t have to try and provide everything yourself.

E: Again, providing the safety first, rather than the identity.

PP: It makes good ministry sense, apart from the child protection side. A lot of these things make good ministry sense irrespective of the child protection aspects of it.

It is important also to incorporate awareness about child sexual abuse in a broader context of child safety. I used to teach child protection in churches, and typically I would start off by asking people where the first aid kit was in the church.

This is basic child safety stuff. It’s important to focus on that mundane level concerning physical safety, where the most common risks are. In that context you can also explain the need to be concerned about sexual predators. You can’t focus just on the most extreme end of the child safety spectrum. Talking about common hazards normalises child safety as part of the ordinary work of ministry with kids.

E: In the summary for Smith lecture, it says that you’ll address: ‘Why did this happen?’ You’ve already mentioned opportunity – is there more to say down that line?

PP: I think there is. One cannot deal with this issue honestly and fairly without drawing attention to the very high levels of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church compared to other churches. Although the data is not all that clear, overwhelmingly what you see are victims of abuse in the Catholic Church. That might be due to the fact that it is the largest denomination in this country in terms of adherents. It certainly ran a large number of children’s homes, orphanages and boarding schools.

I keep stressing opportunity because it’s a very important issue. When I talk about high levels of abuse in the Catholic Church, I’m talking about abuse by priests and religious brothers. It is very likely that Catholic priests and religious brothers had more opportunities than ministers and youth workers in other churches. Catholic schools and children’s homes were typically run by religious brothers or sisters a generation or two ago. They weren’t run by lay people. Even still, I consider that the levels of abuse in the Catholic church are grossly disproportionate to the numbers of children who have been cared for, after taking all the contextual factors into account.

That raises some very difficult issues concerning the reasons for that disproportionality. One of the misunderstandings of this area is that sexual abuse of children is due only to paedophilia. Paedophilia is only one explanation amongst a number for why children become victims of sexual abuse.

E: What are the other factors?

PP: Paedophilia is described in the psychiatrists’ handbook, the DSM, as being the appropriate diagnosis for someone who experiences recurrent and intense sexual urges towards pre-pubescent children, lasting at least six months in duration. Now, the classic paedophiles are particularly attracted to boys, and often have very large numbers of victims. They are extraordinarily dangerous.

But if you look at the whole panoply of sex abuse within families, and sex abuse within the community, paedophilia doesn’t actually explain the data. For example, in a study that I conducted with a research team here in Sydney, we were able to obtain the criminal histories of thirty men who had sexually offended against children. When we looked at their criminal records, we found that they had more convictions for property offences than sexual offences. Now, that’s totally counter-intuitive. There is a lot of evidence of that kind. Some sexual abuse of children reflects a broader tendency towards anti-social behaviour. Some men who have been caught for adult rape have also acknowledged they’ve abused children, and some caught for abusing children have acknowledged they’ve been guilty of adult rape as well. The boundaries between abusing adults and children aren’t clear with a lot of sex offenders.

The description ‘paedophile’ also applies only to pre-pubescent children. Attraction to post-pubescent teenagers is, in a biological sense, within the normal range of sexual attraction.

Don’t get me wrong. With a fourteen or fifteen year old girl or boy it is entirely improper to act upon those impulses; but it is biologically within the range of normal for an adult to be attracted to a physical mature teenager.

E: They’re starting to look like an adult in a physical sense.

PP: My point is that the sexual exploitation of teenagers should not be understood as paedophilia. What we’re looking at in some situations is sexual abuse within the broad spectrum of normal sexual attraction, but which involves exploitation of the vulnerability of the youth.

E: I was watching an interview where you talked about celibacy being one of the factors …

PP: I believe it is. I know that has been denied, but I would say there’s a doctrinal reason for denying it. The reality is that dealing with our sexuality can be very complex, whether we wear a clerical collar or not. These desires are not just for sexual fulfillment but desires for comfort, companionship and love. All of these are deeply wired into our beings.

There is a widespread view that celibacy can be a perfectly valid and Christian choice. Being sexual creatures does not mean that we have to be sexually active. What it does mean is that those who walk the path of celibacy and singleness have a much more difficult path. Although in one sense the priestly vocation is a chosen one, in another sense, it may not be. In the past there has been a lot of pressure in devout Catholic families for one of the sons to become a priest – and also a lot of kudos and status.

Now, coming back to opportunity, when celibate church leaders are lonely, and feel a particular need for love and physical affection, one can see how they might engage in sexually abusive behaviour. Some are probably classic paedophiles, but for some it may simply be that they are unable to control their sexual feelings and look for opportunities to have sexual interactions. Teenagers in particular may provide more opportunities to engage in illicit sexual conduct (which will remain secret) than adults because of the power differential.

E: The second question in the Smith Lecture blurb is “what assurance can be given that sexual abuse can never happen again?”

PP: None; but nor can it be given in any other organisation in society. What can be said is that it is now harder to sexually abuse a child in this country than at any stage in history.

That’s the good news! I’m not talking just about churches but across the community. There’s been a huge increase in awareness over the last twenty-five or thirty years. And there have been many positive steps taken to improve child protection. There is indeed some statistical evidence of a decline of sexual abuse of children, although it’s pretty hard to interpret some of that data. The reality is that it is now much more difficult to sexually abuse a child and get away with it than it was thirty years ago.

Certainly in the church circles in which I move, I think there’s a great willingness to engage with the idea of promoting safe churches, and to act on that willingness. If I had a concern about a child and took it to my church leadership, in any congregation I have been in over the last fifteen years, I am absolutely confident that it would be acted on. I’d be very confident that child safety is taken very seriously.