Today, Prime Minister Scott Morrison will make a national apology to victims and survivors of institutional child sexual abuse at Parliament House in Canberra, providing formal acknowledgement of people who have suffered immense hurt.
Thousands of children or possibly tens of thousands have been sexually abused in Australian religious institutions, the Royal Commission into the Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse (RC) discovered.
In its final report, in a volume on religious institutions, the RC provides some horrifying statistics: “Many survivors of child sexual abuse take years or even decades to disclose that they have been abused, and some may never tell anyone. However, it is clear that thousands of children have been affected. In private sessions held to 31 May 2017, 4029 survivors told us about child sexual abuse in religious institutions. The Catholic Church claims data indicated that 4444 claimants alleged incidents of child sexual abuse in 4756 reported claims to Catholic Church authorities, and the Anglican Church complaints data indicated that 1085 complainants alleged incidents of child sexual abuse in 1,119 reported complaints to Anglican Church dioceses.” (Page 283 Religious Institutions book 1)
Religious institutions form part of a bigger picture – but were a major source of the overall abuse in the community.
“The Royal Commission heard from 6875 victims and survivors of child sexual abuse in institutions in private. Of those, 4029 survivors (58.6 per cent) told us about child sexual abuse in religious institutions.” (Page 289 Religious Institutions book 1)
“The extent of child sexual abuse in institutional settings in Australia … has affected tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people.” – Royal Commission report
“One source that has provided some insight into the possible extent of child sexual abuse in institutional contexts in Australia is the Australian Bureau of Statistics Personal Safety Survey … Our analysis of the Personal Safety Survey data showed that in Australia in 2012, approximately 69,600 people aged over 18 reported that they had been sexually abused by a doctor, teacher or minister of religion before the age of 15. More than one in 10 males (11.2 per cent) who reported being sexually abused before the age of 15 reported being abused by a doctor, teacher or minister of religion, compared with just over one in 50 females (2.7 per cent). This survey only collects limited information on child sexual abuse in institutional settings. (Page 285, Religious Institutions book 1)
The overall amount of sexual abuse of children was far greater than the Royal Commission could document. Its report continues: “We conclude from a wide range of sources – including data collected through national surveys such as the Personal Safety Survey, international research, information gathered directly from institutions and from our private sessions – that the extent of child sexual abuse in institutional settings in Australia is considerable, has occurred across many decades and across a wide range of institutions, and has affected tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people. ”
Perhaps even more horrifying than the bare statistics are the personal stories told to the Royal Commission. The stories below are from the “narratives” section of the RC website. Although Eternity has chosen some stories with less explicit content, they come with this content warning from the RC: “This story is about child sexual abuse. It may contain graphic descriptions and strong language, and may be confronting and disturbing.” Names have been changed by the Royal Commission.
As a single mother, Ruth often struggled to find safe social activities that she could enjoy with her three children. So when the opportunity came up to join a local Pentecostal church, she happily went along.
“It’s just that you weren’t accepted as a divorced person in the other churches,” she told the Commissioner. “And I sort of thought, ‘these people are a little bit funny, their doctrine’s a little bit haywire, but it’s good because it’s good things that the kids can go to’.”
Ruth and her kids stayed with the church from the mid-1980s well into the next decade, participating in dinners, functions and the church youth camp.
Then in the late 1990s one of the other mothers at the church made a complaint to the police, alleging that pastor Andrew Maier had touched her daughter inappropriately during a church camp.
When Ruth heard about the complaint, she became concerned that other children might have been abused as well. “I knew that this wasn’t going to be an isolated incident, but because of the power that that man had, it was going to be huge.”
Ruth contacted police and a child protection agency. She also discussed the matter at the church and learned of several other girls who claimed to have been abused by the pastor. The girls were in the same peer group as Ruth’s daughter, and Ruth began to suspect that her daughter may have been abused as well.
Ruth’s daughter “emphatically” denied the abuse, and as far as Ruth knows none of the other girls made official complaints to police or the church.
The initial charge was dropped after a short police investigation, which Ruth believes was hampered by the girl’s father, who refused to cooperate.
“I’ve got a feeling he believes it,” she told the Commissioner. “But what he said to me was ‘Maier’s got cancer – that’s punishment enough’.”
As for the reaction of the church, Ruth recalls that, around the year 2000, the senior pastor made an official announcement that Maier had done no wrong, and had just been showing the girls “a bit of affection.” Behind the scenes, Ruth believes that the church worked to discredit the mother who had made the claim.
Seeing that the church planned to take no further action, Ruth took some action of her own. “I decided to speak to anyone who was a sole parent, because they needed to check their children. And I ran into this young man who had two children on his own and I thought they were very vulnerable, it was a very vulnerable family, so I told him to be careful.”
The man told one of the “head men” from the church what Ruth had said and a short while later she received a call from the senior pastor. “He said, ‘How dare you – this poor man’ or something and ‘You’ll answer to God for this’. Basically that was saying, ‘You’re a liar and you’re making all of this up’.”
Since then, Ruth has not seen any action taken against Pastor Maier or the other members of the church. She believes that Pastor Maier is now working for a church in rural New South Wales, and is concerned that he may reoffend. She wants the church to be investigated and is particularly worried about a number of suicides that have taken place in the community.
Ruth is also concerned about the harm done to Jesus’ name. “I tend to believe that his name has been sullied when it hasn’t been his fault. It’s human beings who have done this sort of thing.”
Dougal thought it normal behaviour for Christian Brothers to fondle boys’ genitals. “You’d be doing your work and they’d come along and they’d slip their hand up your shorts,” he said.
As an 11-year-old, he felt it was “pleasurable” and it made him feel “a bit special”, so he thought there must not be anything wrong if the Brothers were doing it. “I accepted it. I thought this is par for the course.”
In the 1940s, Dougal was in Grade 5 at a Christian Brothers College in Victoria when he was sexually abused by two Brothers who would regularly fondle boys’ genitals. Dougal saw many other boys abused in the same way.
When Dougal was in Grade 6, a Christian Brother visited his parents and told them their son had a “vocation” and should move to Sydney to board with the Christian Brothers. His mother refused permission. When he turned 18, Dougal entered a Jesuit seminary in Victoria and was ordained a priest several years later. He stayed for 10 years before leaving to get married.
Dougal told the Commissioner that he and others were “kept in a state of immaturity” in the seminary. “I say to my wife, ‘I didn’t hit adolescence until I was 30’.”
Nineteen of Dougal’s contemporaries in the seminary were later convicted of child sexual abuse. “How many others are there? … If it is 19 out of 276 who have been convicted of child sexual abuse, an equal or greater number were in adult consensual relations. This whole thing has just got to be blown open. The Vatican won’t. If your Royal Commission tries to, the bishops will come down and give you hell. I don’t know what you can do, but the first thing is to stand up to the Vatican and say, ‘You can’t be dictating this sort of canon law policy to us’.”
After he’d left the priesthood, Dougal worked with community groups advocating for those who had been sexually abused as children by clergy. He also remained friendly with some clergy members and was alarmed by their response to reports of abuse. Many of them minimised it and one priest told him that he’d been to see 55 parents of children who had been sexually abused in a diocese, and that he’d “fixed it up; it’s the end of the matter.”
Dougal, however, knew the parents were furious and their wishes for acknowledgement and apology had not been met. They felt like they were fighting the Catholic Church’s lawyers and insurance company every step of the way. In one case the bishop had offered $50,000 to someone with the comment that if the person didn’t like it they could take the Church to court “and see how you go.”
Dougal said he wasn’t confident senior members of the Catholic Church understood child sexual abuse and its impact. The Truth, Justice and Healing Council set up to coordinate the Catholic Church’s response to the Royal Commission and propose reforms reported to the Bishops’ Council, Dougal said, and it was limited in what it could recommend. “[The bishop] doesn’t know how to give people independence.”
Although the Brothers who had abused him were dead, Dougal wanted the abuse formally recorded and that he had reported the abuse to Victoria Police and to the Victorian Inquiry.
He told the Commissioner he was sure there was a system of moving offending priests and Brothers around. He was in London once when he happened to see a priest he knew was wanted by Victoria Police in relation to child sexual assault allegations. Dougal went to the local English police and told them there was “a publicly known paedophile priest living here,” but he was told Victoria Police didn’t have the resources to extradite the man. “[The Church] was giving him his pension. They knew all about it. They knew where he was. If that’s not collusion and vicarious liability, I don’t know what is.”
“I’m in mourning, grieving for what was stolen from me, what was lost. I was a schoolgirl enjoying learning and planning my future with uni and perhaps a profession. Everything that was important was stolen, destroyed … Instead I was sent home in disgrace, shattered spiritually, psychologically, emotionally. And what’s unfortunate – the ripples from that continue.”
Joann left the family farm in the mid-1950s to attend high school in central New South Wales. She boarded at a hostel run by the Anglican Church where the town’s assistant priest, Bob McLaren, was in charge along with his wife, Lotti. McLaren was “handsome, charismatic and charming” and in his mid-20s when 14-year-old Joann came into his care.
“From the beginning I was uneasy about Padre McLaren’s behaviour,” Joann said. “He insisted on coming too close to me and said, ‘I am a touchy person”.’ Joann was quickly singled out as McLaren’s “favourite”. He would leave chocolate on her bed, give her gifts of money and flatter her at every opportunity. McLaren also wove their mutual faith into the relationship, in one instance telling Joann to think of him at particular times, which is when he would be praying for the two of them.
McLaren began bringing Joann into his private rooms and telling her about problems with his marriage. He told her that he loved her more than Lotti. The abuse began with a kiss. McLaren then saw Joann alone many times, whenever Lotti was away. He would ask her to strip naked and lie on his bed. He introduced her to books on sexual techniques.
McLaren first began intercourse with Joann when she was 15, after telling her that it was God’s will they be together as man and wife. The abuse continued for nearly two years, whenever an opportunity arose. Joann recalls one morning when McLaren pulled her roughly into his front room for sex. “I must have looked puzzled or confused – Padre McLaren said, ‘It’s all right, she’s not here, she’s in hospital, she’s had the baby, a boy. No bother – and it should have been you!’”
Joann has kept the scores of letters McLaren wrote to her over this time. They are full of sexually explicit material mixed with promises about their future together, the will of God, and McLaren’s need for a baby with her.
The abuse ended with Joann’s betrayal by Bob McLaren. He concocted a story that she had been having sex with local boys in their cars, and she was expelled from school. Joann returned to the family farm in shame and confusion. Her parents were devastated and her mother became ill with worry.
McLaren did not leave Joann alone, however. She received a letter from him saying he was “sorting things out”. Joann believed his earlier promises still held: that he would leave his wife and come to marry her and take her away. But McLaren did not appear. Joann waited. Years passed.
Eventually, she married a local farmer. “Unfortunately, I had been too damaged by the abuse and exploitation, the lies and false promises. I made an unwise and disastrous decision.” Her husband began bashing her three months into the marriage, during Joann’s first pregnancy. Joann put up with the violence, believing it was punishment for her time with McLaren.
“Later on, I couldn’t leave because I believed my husband’s threats of violence: ‘If you piss off, I’ll come after you and kill you’.”
In 1976 Joann contacted McLaren in desperation, hoping he would help her find a women’s shelter or somewhere else to live. McLaren, now a bishop, told Joann he had been missing her for the past 20 years and he wanted to resume their relationship. Joann agreed.
For the next two decades their lives were interwoven. Joann left her husband and found a house with some of her children. McLaren would come and stay regularly. His wife became aware of the affair and McLaren broke things off for a while.
But in the mid-80s he came to live with Joann for months, until church officials intervened and brought him back to his own family. Joann had become pregnant to McLaren at this time, but lost the baby.
In the early 90s, McLaren again tried to resume the affair, sending her personal items ahead of a proposed permanent move. Shortly afterwards, he changed his mind, declaring he was “too old” for Joann.
“That made me realise that, in fact, I must have been too young for him then, when I was a schoolgirl. I was distraught; I realised that I had always been used.”
Joann finally disclosed her abuse to the Anglican Church. She found supporters but also, at the highest level, resistance. A mediation session went badly. Joann was looking for an admission of responsibility from him for the early abuse, but he refused to give it. An archbishop wrote to her and implied she was lying. All this only made Joann more determined.
‘The Church could’ve begun my healing but they just exacerbated my wounds.”
Joann’s interaction with the Anglican Church continued into the new century. “The more they tried to stop me, the more determined I became.” Eventually, she went public. The story of her life, blighted from childhood by an abusive relationship, has had repercussions within the church and at the highest level of government.
“I believe I’ve got some peculiar kind of Stockholm syndrome because I’m waiting for things to happen so that when McLaren comes back and makes it all right. And so the house I bought I bought with him in mind. I’d buy some music – I think, ‘I wonder if he’ll like it?’ That connection was made when I was a child … I don’t think I’ll ever be rid of it until he dies.”
Recently retired, Wal has begun to look back on his life and he’s not happy with what he sees.
“I have lived my life afraid. Afraid to do anything. I put the whole of my life into my work in an effort to try and get it right, to do it well, to do something that mattered, that could be worthwhile. And the only word I can think of is ‘pathetic’. That’s what I thought … when I was looking back, I thought, ‘What a pathetic life’.”
Before the sexual abuse began, Wal was already a damaged and vulnerable child, having suffered years of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his father. Seeking safety and meaning in his life, he joined a Christian church in Melbourne in the early 1960s when he was 14 years old.
David Jensen and Andrew McCall were children’s missioners who worked for the church.
“Because of my home life, and my being a seriously troubled teenager, I was offered the opportunity to initially visit Jensen and McCall on weekends, and later to live with Jensen and McCall as if their son.”
Desperate to get away from his father, and believing that “it would be a much better life,” Wal accepted the offer and moved in with the two men. A short while later they began pressuring him for sex. The first incident occurred one night after Jensen asked Wal to sit on his bed with him and watch TV.
“I did not know what to do; I did not even know what was happening at the beginning, and I was a virgin in every way.”
McCall was sitting on his bed, in the same bedroom, while the incident took place.
“Once Jensen had his sexual intercourse, the next and immediate expectation was for me to go to McCall and allow him to have intercourse with me.
“Once they had what they wanted, I was left to myself to go off to my bed. I was in pain, quite terrified, not knowing what to do. I cleaned up and returned to my bed, did not sleep and cried pretty quietly.”
Sometime later, Wal went to his father and told him what Jensen and McCall had done. Wal’s father called him a liar and sent him back to live with the two men.
Wal stayed with them for the next three years and was repeatedly abused. Usually the abuse happened at the house, but there were also incidents at church camps. Also, on several occasions the men forced Wal to have sex with one of their friends.
The abuse ended when Wal moved out of the house in his late teens. About four or five years later he reported the abuse to his minister, who said he would take it to the church hierarchy.
As Wal understands it, the minister did what he promised and was “warned off” by senior church officials.
“The only response I got back from him was ‘best to forget about it’.”
A few years later, Wal tried again, this time contacting the church superintendent.
“I must have gotten up quite a lot of courage to even front that because I was on my own. His response was to explain to me how something like this would hurt Jensen and McCall. How it would hurt their reputation … He also pushed that it was best left and not pursued further.”
The superintendent offered “absolutely nothing” in the way of support and did not encourage Wal to go to police. But he never challenged the truth of what Wal said.
After that, Wal didn’t know what to do. More than a decade passed before he regathered his strength and decided to “fight back”. Within the space of a few years he reported the abuse to police and to the church.
He found the police “extremely good. They were the best thing that happened to me right up to then.”
The police conducted a thorough investigation, built a case and recommended prosecution. Unfortunately, the Director of Public Prosecutions ruled that Jensen and McCall were “too old and infirm” to be prosecuted, and the case was dropped.
Wal was shattered by the decision. Still, one positive thing did come out of the process: over the course of the investigation, Jensen and McCall eventually, and grudgingly, admitted their guilt.
“They would say, ‘We didn’t do anything.’ Then it was, ‘Well, we probably did but he seduced us.’ And it gradually gets down to, ‘Well, yes, it did happen’.”
Armed with this information, Wal went to the church and made another official complaint. At first he got nowhere, but after writing many letters and enlisting the help of some friends and ministers he eventually got a response. It wasn’t much. The church made a small announcement in its newsletter, removed Jensen and McCall from the Honour Roll and offered Wal some counselling, which he refused.
One of the most offensive aspects of this response, Wal said, was that the church spun the story to make it look as if Jensen and McCall were sorry for what they had done when, in fact, the two men were not sorry at all.
“I was told by [a friend] off the record they didn’t have clue what they’d done, how damaging it was. They were absolutely convinced that they were the victims and I was the aggressor. It was all sort of turned around.”
Jensen and McCall are now dead. But the church carries on, wilfully blind, Wal believes, to the plight of those suffering the effects of child sexual abuse.
“The lack of even a token institutional offer of compensation shows blatant disregard for the person, for the victim. The institution’s approach to the compensation process is woefully inadequate and is totally devoid of any understanding or empathy of a lifetime of heartache and pain and the price paid when abused and manipulated this way.