The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has released its final report; these landmark hearings on the institutional responses to reports of pedophilia have uncovered some shocking insights. One of the most important findings of the Commission has been the existence of clericalism – the belief that clergy are more trustworthy than “ordinary” lay people.

Clericalism is an unfortunate byproduct of religious life, deeply woven into the structure of most religious and spiritual groups. Even in groups claiming to have no clergy, the de facto leaders are automatically trusted above rank-and-file members, their “higher” spiritual status marking them as morally superior. This false perception can lead to the dangerous belief that a member of the clergy would not be capable of abusing a child. The Commission reported:

In devout religious families, parents often had such high regard for people in religious ministry that they naturally trusted them to supervise their children. 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.

This atmosphere of clericalism not only gives pedophiles “unfettered access to children”, it assures that the children who report abuse are often accused of lying, which compounds the damage. Tragically, even the children who are believed are often counseled to forgive their abusers, because the assaults are considered a moral lapse or a sin, rather than a crime.

Whether or not the child’s report of abuse is believed, the Commission found that, more often than not, the abuse is dealt with “in-house,” for the good of the group’s reputation. Those who insist on going to authorities are often reproached for bringing shame on the organization’s “good” name. Many have been ostracized, shunned, and even threatened with damnation for upholding the law.

Most disturbing was the Commission’s discovery on how children are taught clericalism, across multiple religious and spiritual traditions:

We have 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.

Pedophiles who have gained any kind of spiritual status in their particular organization have free rein to abuse children with impunity. Shielded by clericalism, they are able to keep abusing over decades, even if multiple victims report them. It comes as no surprise that the Commission determined they had “heard more allegations of child sexual abuse in relation to institutions managed by religious organisations than any other management type”.

We at Open Minds salute the sterling work of the Australian Royal Commission, and hope that their extensive study will lead to positive changes around the world. We hope that religious organizations take immediate action to change the attitude towards authority that clericalism breeds. We must teach our children that, no matter how beneficial an organization, there can always be a wolf in the fold – and we must promise them that we will listen, even – and especially – when they accuse a shepherd of abuse.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about clericalism that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!