In fight against sex abuse, Australian archbishop sees progress, challenges

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Amid ongoing controversy surrounding clerical sex abuse in Australia, one of the country's archbishops believes the local Churches are making progress – but still face a long journey ahead.

“It's very much a work in progress; we still have a long way to go,” said Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, according to the Australian Associated Press.

“Because it's not just a matter of changing procedures and protocols but of building a culture, and that takes time,” he continued.

Over the years, Australia's sexual abuse crisis has been one of the most infamous within the Church. A recent report from the Australian Royal Commission found that seven percent of Catholic priests in Australia serving between 1950-2009 have been accused of child sex crimes.

One of the most recent cases is that of Cardinal George Pell of Melbourne, who was accused of ignoring sexual abuse claims against Fr. Gerald Ridsdale, who has since been dismissed from the clerical state.

Cardinal Pell himself is also facing sexual abuse charges dating back to 1961, to which he has pleaded not guilty. His preliminary hearing is set for Oct. 6.

Other abuse claims within the country prompted the Australian Royal Commission to create the Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse organization, which was officially established in 2013. The group investigates how child sex abuse claims are handled within the country, particularly in religious environments, as well as in education, government, and sporting.

The commission has been investigating the Catholic Church in Australia, going so far as to propose that priests be legally obligated to disclose sexual abuse sins which have been admitted in the confessional, or face criminal charges. They have also proposed 85 additional changes to Australia’s criminal justice system.

Amid the commission’s investigation, some of the country's clergy have responded, including Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne and Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, who both expressed sorrow and regret for the Church’s failure in this area.

A recent report conducted by RMIT University found that the Catholic Church in Australia was “significantly behind” in its development of standards and procedures that protect against child sexual abuse, compared to similar countries.

However, Archbishop Coleridge noted that the report may not be completely accurate, since the Church has promoted some efforts to combat sexual abuse claims which are more behind-the-scenes. He pointed to the Archdiocese of Brisbane, which now has safeguarding officers and external auditing.

The Catholic educational system in Australia has also made strides. Archbishop Coleridge noted that the Catholic schools are now “probably the safest places in the nation for a child to be.”

In addition, the Catholic Church established a new non-profit group in 2016 called Catholic Professional Standards Limited, which promotes protection for children against abuse by auditing and reporting on Catholic entities.

While these efforts are pointing the Church in Australia in the right direction, Archbishop Coleridge said that the Church does have a long way to go.  

“Australia has done some things well and some things badly,” Archbishop Coleridge said, adding, “but that's true of any country.”

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