Child Sexual Abuse and the Churches: A Story of Moral Failure?

Current Issues in Criminal Justice, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 119-138, 2014

Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 13/78

33 Pages Posted: 2 Nov 2013 Last revised: 19 Mar 2015

Date Written: October 31, 2013


Story after story has appeared in the Australian media of sexual exploitation of children in church settings, and the cover-up of those crimes by superiors in the Church who, for whatever reason, chose not to involve the police or to act protectively towards children. Most such cases are in the Catholic Church. These patterns have been replicated in many countries across the western world.

This paper, given as the 2013 Smith lecture in Sydney (October 2013), seeks to examine what we know about child sexual abuse in church contexts, comparing the available data on the Catholic Church with that in relation to other faith communities. Although the information is very limited, there are some indications that not only are rates of abuse by clergy and religious much higher in the Catholic Church than by clergy or pastoral staff of other churches, but that the rates may be higher than in the general population of males. Although there are some who argue that mandatory celibacy does not offer an explanation for this, the author argues that in fact it is a significant factor. The paper also examines some cultural explanations for the cover-ups, including the role of canon law and of clericalism. Church leaders in the past were discouraged from reporting to the police by a culture which saw the discipline of priests as a matter for the Church, and by a belief that bishops should not denounce their priest-sons to the civil authorities.

Much has changed in Australia at least since 1996, and the efforts of the Catholic Church to make amends need to be understood and assessed in the light of that cultural context. However, some cases continue to be badly handled, issues of compensation remain a vexed question, and there are still ‘rotten apples’ holding positions of leadership or influence who ought to be removed. The Church, worldwide, has a serious governance problem. The paper concludes by saying that the Catholic Church will not be able to rebuild community trust until the leaders, who are tainted by the way in which they handled child sexual abuse cases earlier in their careers, have passed on the baton to a younger generation.

Keywords: Children, Child sexual abuse, Catholic Church, law and religion, Canon Law, Compensation, Celibacy

JEL Classification: K10, K30

Suggested Citation

Parkinson, Patrick, Child Sexual Abuse and the Churches: A Story of Moral Failure? (October 31, 2013). Current Issues in Criminal Justice, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 119-138, 2014, Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 13/78, Available at SSRN: or

Patrick Parkinson (Contact Author)

University of Queensland ( email )

Forgan Smith Building
The University of Queensland
St Lucia, Queensland 4072

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