Royal Commission needs to investigate the culture of the Catholic Church

A University of Western Sydney expert says the Prime Minister’s announcement of a Royal Commission into the role of institutions in the abuse of children represents a long-awaited shift in the way Australia approaches child sexual abuse.

Dr Michael Salter, from the School of Social Sciences and Psychology at UWS, has completed a PhD and is launching a book on the topic of organised sexual abuse.

He says there is a perception in the media and in the community that “paedophile priests” simply use their authority within the Church to molest children and avoid detection or prosecution – when in fact, institutional sexual abuse is much more complicated.

“Research shows that sexual abuse is more likely to occur in – and more likely to be ignored by – male-dominated organisations that lack oversight and accountability,” says Dr Salter.

“Sexual abusers will seek out careers in these types of organisations, with the specific motivation of attaining a position of authority and gaining access to vulnerable children and women.”

Dr Salter says the institutional culture of the Catholic Church creates a situation that is ripe for the development of cultures of abuse.

“The general mindset and power structure of the Church is medieval in origin and nature. Figures of authority are entitled to expect absolute deference from subordinates; men have divinely sanctioned authority over women and children; and there is little, if any, real interest in democratic decision-making,” he says.

“In this environment, one or two charismatic perpetrators can convince adults and children into overlooking, colluding or perpetrating in the abuse. This can result in the development of clandestine networks of abusers within and across the institution.”

Rather than merely looking to identify and prosecute the paedophiles within the Church, Dr Salter says the Royal Commission should look to expose the depths of this dark institutional culture.

“Institutional sexual abuse is a political hornets’ nest. The Prime Minister should be congratulated for moving to address the issue openly and transparently,” says Dr Salter.

“To be truly successful, the Royal Commission must result in the introduction of safeguards and practical policy solutions that protect vulnerable children and prevent repetitive sexual abuse into the future.

“To do this, the Royal Commission must address the cultural problems within the church and other institutions and indeed within the community more generally.”



14 November 2012

Listen to Dr Salter on ABC Radio's 'PM' program (opens in a new window)

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Contact: Danielle Roddick, Senior Media Officer