Catholic Church starts survey ‘to be prepared’ for abuse inquiry

The Catholic Church is beginning its first-ever survey in New Zealand to get to grips with just how many priests abused how many children.

This could be New Zealand's "Spotlight" moment, said a renowned researcher into Catholic abuse, Professor Des Cahill.

The Boston scandal, dramatised in the Oscar-winning film Spotlight, sparked the US church's first prevalence study of abuse in 2002.

"New Zealand bishops have known about this since the late 1980s," said Prof Cahill.

"And so in 30 years, this is the first time that they've moved towards doing a prevalence study. This should have been done at least in the early 2000s."

The Australian Church initiated a prevalence study in 2013 as part of their Royal Commission of Inquiry into abuse.

Church leaders had told him the survey was under way but had been dragged into it by the prospect of the Royal Commission in this country ordering them to provide information, Prof Cahill said.

The church later confirmed it had begun collating "information from bishops and congregations regarding complaints that they received related to abuse during this period".

The commission's Catholic liaison group Te Rōpū Tautoko chair Catherine Fyfe said the church "wanted to be prepared to respond quickly to requests when and if the Royal Commission requested information from us".

"The information that we have requested is far broader than the sexual abuse of children but will include any such complaints."

Until the survey took place, the church was making policy, and trying to change its ways, in a vacuum of information, Prof Cahill said.

"It's important to get the prevalence data because it's on the basis of that you can make good policy."

He gave evidence to the Royal Commission of Inquiry in Auckland last week, drawing on the 384-page report into Catholic abuse and cover-up that he co-authored as part of the Australian inquiry into abuse.

RNZ has spoken with Catholic dioceses that expect to strike problems in the survey, where religious orders are resistant to scrutiny or are based overseas, like the Christian Brothers in Australia, which was found to have been rife with abusers.

Ms Fyfe said a parallel survey of Catholic institutions that existed in the 1950-1999 period should be completed by the end of the year.

The Catholic Church's lawyer Sally McKechnie promised the bishops' full cooperation to the Royal Commission last Friday, 8 November.

"They are committed to their errors and omissions being examined transparently and openly," she told the commissioners.

"We anticipate that investigations into faith-based churches will begin shortly. The Catholic bishops and congregational leaders welcome that opportunity. They're committed to accepting responsibility."

However, an abuse survivor is encountering obstacles.

Steve Goodlass, of central Otago, has been trying to find out about church audits of its child safety systems within parishes and the like.

"Their documents refer to 'developing' audit strategies, not audit strategies that are in place," Mr Goodlass said.

The church's chief abuse investigator referred him to its website for answers.

When he did not find them, he persisted with specific questions about how often audits are done and by who, and the results.

The investigator at the church's National Office of Professional Standards responded by email with a single line: "I really have no more to add to my previous responses."

RNZ has submitted similar questions to the office.

Professor Cahill said the National Office and its audits were not as good as they should be.

"The Irish, English and US models are much superior to Australia, and certainly superior to the New Zealand model."

He said he had been told that bishops had asked the Vatican to approve a better system of auditing in New Zealand.

Sally McKechnie suggested to commissioners that the New Zealand Church had "significant differences" with others worldwide, so the bishops did not agree with all the parallels that Prof Cahill and the co-author of his report, Dr Peter Wilkinson, had drawn at the commission hearing.

Those findings stressed that the courses of action in response to child sex abuse adopted by bishops around the world "have been remarkably uniform".

"Catholic bishops around the world have been found to be incapable of addressing the problem of clerical sexual abuse on their own," the report said.

The Australian Catholic bishops "recognised their own incapacity" when they set up a layperson-led council for the 2013 inquiry.

New Zealand's version, Te Rōpū Tautoko, was weighed down with clerics, which Prof Cahill said reflected that bishops here were having trouble letting go of control.

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