An internationally-renowned expert on clerical sex abuse believes its extent in New Zealand has not yet been exposed.

Emeritus Professor Desmond Cahill, of RMIT University in Melbourne, also criticised the Government for not extending the terms of reference of its historical inquiry into abuse in state care homes to include religious institutions.

Cahill was a senior consultant on clerical sex abuse in the Catholic Church for the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which referred 2575 abuse cases to the authorities. It released its final report in December last year.

He told the Herald a "triggering event" may be needed to precipitate a decisive move to reveal clerical abuse in New Zealand and initiate changes to ensure mistakes of the past didn't happen again.

Advertisement

"The veil on clerical sexual abuse of children has not been fully lifted in most countries, and New Zealand probably fits into that category, perhaps because, as has happened in other developed countries, there has not been a very public triggering event," he said.

"A good example of that would be the Boston scandal in the US."

His guess was the incidence of abuse was not as bad in New Zealand as it had been in Australia.

He pointed out colonial New Zealand had a short Royal Commission in August 1900 that examined abuse in a Catholic residential care institution for teenage boys outside Nelson, which "may have had a salutary and mitigating impact for several generations".

READ MORE:
The fallen father: Paedophile priest 'abused children for decades'
The fallen father: Therapy group attacks culture of silence

But he said New Zealand faced the same issues as elsewhere in the world when it came to clericalism and its failure to protect children.

"The same culture of secrecy with the so-called 'pontifical secret', together with the lack of transparency and accountability, would have been operating in the New Zealand Catholic Church," he said.

"It is a worldwide phenomenon based in clericalism and … Catholic teaching that claimed priests were ontologically changed when ordained, and that the Church was a societas perfecta (perfect society).

Advertisement

"The Church also wanted at all costs to protect its reputation in its commitment to being an all-holy Church, forever spotless."

Glo Treadaway, 67, a former victims' advocate who had been employed by Auckland Diocese as a religious educator, reinforced Cahill's comments.

Treadaway was also a member of a five-person Bishop's Protocol Committee in Auckland during the 1990s, a diocesan body tasked with implementing the Church's response to clerical abuse claims. It included two lawyers.

The former pastoral assistant at St Patrick's Cathedral in Auckland told the Herald efforts to address clerical abuse had been impeded by a pervasive secrecy and legalism within the Catholic Church.

The counsellor, based in Waipu, said the New Zealand Catholic Church's protocols for handling abuse complaints contained in A Path to Healing - Te Houhanga Rongo, first published in 1993, had not delivered transparency.

"I don't see it as a path to healing, I see it as a path to covering up. It emphasises 'reconciliation' but nothing in it reflects the gospel or champions victims, many of whom lose all sense of self as they remain enmeshed in a church that puts itself first and revictimises the victim.

"It's sadly lacking in integrity. In the end I felt I was colluding with the church, not helping victims, and being part of something not very nice."

Treadaway, formerly Gloria Ramsay, was herself sexually abused as a child by deceased priest Dr Frank Terry when he was based at St Mary's Parish in Northcote in the 1950s.

She formed a support network in the early 1990s encouraging other victims to come forward and get support. She said she had spoken to hundreds of people with stories of clerical abuse, but very few had made official complaints.

"Many didn't trust the process, for others the shame of sexual and spiritual abuse was too powerful. Indoctrination also guaranteed silence."

"What proved the biggest obstacle for victims was lawyers ensuring the church was protected. That, and Canon Law, took priority over pastoral care of the people," she said.

The church's response to clerical abuse had, she said, amounted to a "top-down approach" that failed to listen to victims or address a profound legacy of pain and neglect.

Cahill said the Government's decision to exclude religious institutions from its own Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care was flawed.

"It was short-sighted, and it is heartening to see the Catholic bishops wanting to extend the terms of reference. As Jesus Christ said, 'The truth will make us free', and it presents the church with the opportunity to make the necessary changes to its ecclesiastical structure and some of its pastoral practices."

The Government's abuse inquiry, announced on February 1, will cover the years between 1950 and 1999 and will look at circumstances where the state directly ran institutions such as child welfare institutions, borstals or psychiatric hospitals, and where the Government contracted services out to other institutions.

A spokeswoman for Tracey Martin, the Minister of Internal Affairs, said she could not comment on Cahill's remarks, as Martin was "actively considering" the recommendations of commission chairman Sir Anand Satyanand on the terms of reference.

Do you need help?

If you've ever experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone call the confidential crisis helpline on: 0800 227 233 (08002B SAFE).

If it's an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.