What are Catholic parishes doing to guard against child sexual abuse?

The Catholic Church has acknowledged the number of priests identified by the child abuse royal commission is indefensible, and says it is working hard to make sure the abuse is never repeated.

But what does that mean for local parishes making changes to protect children into the future?

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, first announced by the Gillard government in 2012, is due to deliver its final report at the end of this year.

Already it has identified nearly 2,000 figures in the Catholic Church, including priests and brothers, as alleged perpetrators, something it has acknowledged as tragic and indefensible.

Like parishes across the country, St Anthony’s in the northern Perth suburb of Wanneroo was rocked by revelations from the royal commission.

No abuse is alleged to have happened under its roof but one of its former priests, Leo Spicer, was jailed last year for sexual offences he committed in Victoria in the 1980s.

The current priest, John Daly, said he is now determined to make St Anthony’s a safe place, for example by ensuring young altar servers do not change into their robes without parental supervision.

“Now the door to the altar server room should be left open and we encourage altar server parents to enter with them,” Father Daly said.

St Anthony’s has also appointed two parishioners to act as so-called safeguarding officers.

Their names and numbers are on the church noticeboard and anyone with safety concerns can make a report to them.

But Father Daly said he was concerned about perceptions of the Church in the wake of the royal commission, for example how the words “paedophile” and “priest” were now closely linked.

“There’s no doubt that as a priest in the modern world that there is an extra burden with regard to that connection,” he said.
“But all it does, it’s there to remind us that we are in a position of privilege in the community and we need to ensure that we are above reproach.”

‘I have to have faith in the teachings’

The Catholic Archdiocese of Perth has also employed former police officer Andrea Muslin as the director of its safeguarding project.

The ABC understands that upon taking up the job she had a frank conversation with WA clergymen, making it clear any remaining paedophiles needed to go.

Ms Muslin said at times she has needed to organise supervision for parishioners who were known sex offenders and still wanted to go to mass.

“It’s about finding safe ways for them to do that and the priority will always be with the children and the families,” she said.
The latest census showed almost 150,000 fewer Australians identify as Catholic than in 2011, a year before the royal commission was announced.

There is no publicly available data about whether there has been a similar drop in church attendance.

But Father Daly said this Easter actually saw bigger than usual crowds, which he suspected could be a response to an unstable global environment.

“Maybe there is a desire for some peace,” he said.

But some at St Anthony’s like Ruth Barker, whose daughter Helen is an altar server, said their faith in the Church had not wavered.

“I want to encourage her to be part of her community. I trust my priest, I have to have faith in the teachings that the school has provided about safeguarding yourself,” Ms Barker said.