Reflection on the sexual abuse of children

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
3rd of March, 2019

I have only once attended a worship service at which George Pell presided. It was held on Sunday the 23rd of May, 1999, and I know the exact date because I attended the service wearing a rainbow sash, accompanying lesbian and gay Catholics. ‘Rainbow Sash’ was organised in Australia by Michael Kelly, who was born and brought up a Catholic and embraced by his church until he came out as gay. The rainbow sash he wore to church made visible what would otherwise be invisible, his sexuality. Because of that he was refused communion. As a good Protestant I wasn’t eligible to receive communion in a Catholic church anyway, but I accompanied a Catholic school friend of my brother down the aisle at St Patrick’s Cathedral, and stood beside him as George Pell refused him communion. Afterwards, we hung a wreath on the cathedral fence in memory of the victims of homophobia in church schools.


In response, Archbishop Pell said that homosexuality was a greater health risk than smoking, and that if young gay and lesbian people committed suicide that was just one more reason to discourage ‘people going in that direction’.[1] A few days later Pell wrote in a newspaper opinion piece that, ‘It is grossly unfair and misleading for those who work to win recruits to homosexual practice to blame those who discourage such recruiting for the suicide of homosexuals.’[2]

I’m sharing my very minimal contact with George Pell to explain why I cannot in any way be objective about this week’s news of his conviction for child sexual abuse. I am in the same place as broadcaster Richard Glover, who wrote this week that his ‘feeling of dislike [towards Pell] led me, in a roundabout way, to doubt the rumours that swirled around him. The idea that he was himself a paedophile seemed so unlikely — a plot twist that too easily fitted with public anger toward the Catholic Church and its failure to handle child abuse within its ranks’. That’s been my feeling, too. It just seems too ‘Hollywood’ that the man who has spent so much of his career directing hate at LGBTIQ people could be a child abuser.

A jury has found Pell guilty. I did not hear the evidence on which it made that decision, so I am not going to comment on it. What I am going to do instead is look at the report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which reminds us as a church of the times we have failed to protect children and encourages us to do better in the future. I am going to be talking about the abuse of children, and hearing about that can cause people pain, so please be warned.

Churches are not the only institutions in which children have been sexually abused, but the Royal Commission ‘heard more allegations of child sexual abuse in relation to institutions managed by religious organisations than any other’ institution’.[3] More than 4,000 survivors talked in private sessions about abuse occurring in 1,691 different religious institutions. Of the survivors of abuse in religious institutions, 61.4 % had been abused in a Catholic institution; 14.8% in an Anglican institution; and 7.2% in a Salvation Army institution. 2.3% of those who disclosed in private sessions that they had been abused in a religious institution said the abuse had occurred in a Uniting Church institution. The Uniting Church’s own figures are that 430 allegations of child sexual abuse have been made to the church’s six synods since Union, and that of these allegations, 102 have resulted in claims of child sexual abuse where the claimant sought redress through a redress process or civil litigation.[4]

The Royal Commission looked at many institutions, not just religious ones, but there are ways in which child abuse by religious leaders causes particular harm. The Royal Commission report points out that, ‘The perpetrators of child sexual abuse in religious institutions were, in many cases, people that children and parents trusted the most and suspected the least.’[5] ‘People in religious ministry were considered to be representatives of God. Many parents were unable to believe they could be capable of sexually abusing a child. In this environment, perpetrators who were people in religious ministry often had unfettered access to children … Survivors also told us that as children they were threatened or blamed for the sexual abuse they experienced, often in ways that manipulated their religious beliefs – such as the threat of being sent to hell if they resisted sexual abuse or disclosed it. The use of threats and blame in the name of God had a powerful effect on children.’[6]

The Commissioners wrote that, ‘We heard that children were raised to have the utmost respect for the religious organisation their family was a part of, and were often taught that people in religious ministry, such as priests, were God’s representatives on earth. Some perpetrators used this status to facilitate child sexual abuse. When a religious child was sexually abused by such a person, the impacts were often profound. Some children felt that they had been abused by God or that God must have willed the abuse to happen.’[7]

That is the aspect of the abuse of children by religious leaders that makes me angriest. As a minister I am aware of how much respect ordained people are given by our communities, and for abusers to have misused that utterly appals me. The impact of it lasts forever. The Commissioners write: ‘Survivors told us they could not attend a parent’s funeral, a sibling’s wedding or religious events like a baptism or holy communion because they could not walk through the door of a church. Others told us they could not celebrate religious holidays such as Christmas or Easter because it would trigger memories of the sexual abuse.’[8] If we’re ever tempted to congratulate ourselves on ‘only’ having 102 claims of child sexual abuse over our history, we need to remember that the abuse of a single child in a Uniting Church institution is one too many.

That’s all the hard stuff. Let me end with some encouragement. There are many areas in which the Uniting Church has been ahead of other churches. The Commissioners wrote that: ‘We heard about various ways to improve culture in religious institutions. They include prioritising the best interests and safety of children, addressing clericalism, improving leadership and governance, sharing accountability for child safety, enhancing the role of women in decision-making in relation to child safety, embedding a culture of child safety through policies and procedures, and understanding the impacts of child sexual abuse.’[9] As a church the Uniting Church already does all that. We don’t have a particular culture of clericalism. Uniting Church ministers aren’t seen as superior beings, above question. Our hierarchy is relatively flat, and our Presidents and Moderators are replaced every three years. No one in the Uniting Church could become as powerful as George Pell became in the Catholic Church.

In some areas the Commissioners pointed to the Uniting Church as a role model, for example in the way we explicitly identify children from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, children from culturally and linguistically diverse communities, children with disabilities and those who have experienced previous trauma as needing particular care;[10] that all our applicants for ministry must have medical and psychological assessments before becoming candidates;[11] and that all Uniting Church staff and volunteers must participate in regular training on our Code of Ethics and child safe ministry practices.[12] Our National Child Safe Policy Framework was also described by the Commissioners as ‘an example of a policy that recognises the interaction between police and the institutional responses to a complaint of child sexual abuse’.[13]

We occasionally complain about elements of our National Child Safe Policy Framework. Why should elderly Op-Shop volunteers need Working with Children checks? Why must all congregation leaders be regularly retrained in child safe practices? The answer is those 430 allegations and 102 claims of child sexual abuse made to Synods; those 2.3 % of survivors of abuse in religious institutions who told the Royal Commission the institution had been a Uniting Church one. We need to keep working until those numbers get down to zero. When Jesus’ disciples were arguing about which of them was the greatest, Jesus ‘took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”’ (Mark 9:36-7) Let us always remember that when we welcome children to the church we are welcoming Jesus among us, and do everything possible to keep Jesus safe in our midst. Amen.


[1] Fergus Shiel, ‘Homosexuality a health risk: Pell,’ The Age, 24 May 1999, p. 5.

[2] George Pell, ‘The archbishop replies,’ The Age, 28 May 1999.

[3] Volume 1, p. 11.

[4] Volume 1, p. 17.

[5] Volume 1, p. 12.

[6] Volume 1, p. 23.

[7] Volume 1. p. 24.

[8] Volume 1, p. 486.

[9] Volume 1, p. 59.

[10] Volume 3, p. 352.

[11] Volume 3, p. 355.

[12] Volume 3, p. 450.

[13] Volume 3, p. 455.

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