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New research by our Centre for Catholic Studies finds aspects of Catholic culture were implicated in how clerical child sexual abuse happened.

The four-year study listened to the voices of victims and survivors of abuse and others affected across the Catholic community.

The study suggests that aspects of the church’s culture partly explain how the response has often failed, causing further pain and harm, described by victims and survivors as ‘secondary abuse’.

Listening to victims and survivors

The report invites groups across the Catholic community to listen more deeply to the voices of those directly and indirectly affected and consider what may need to change in Catholic culture and theological understanding.

Although the report recognises that progress has been made in safeguarding practice and compassionate support for survivors, it concludes that more work is needed. It suggests learning from restorative justice and healing circle practices to find ways to heal relationships between survivors and the Catholic community.

Lack of belief

All the research participants who had experienced sexual abuse in a Catholic setting had also experienced being treated inadequately by a representative of the Church when they came forward with an allegation or sought support around a disclosure. Many disclosures were met by denial, disbelief or a lack of compassion for the person and their pain.

A survivor explained this as “how the institution treats you, how the institution ignores you, how the institution doesn’t want to know you”. Another survivor said that “you want belief more than anything or any financial compensation, before anything whatsoever, for somebody to say that they believe you means everything”.

Some survivors had also later experienced sensitive support and solidarity but there were not enough of these ‘glimmers of hope’.

Clericalism and accountability

In the research, people from directly affected parishes described the pain and grief when a priest disappears or is found guilty and imprisoned for sexual offences. Fellow priests, deacons and bishops talked about the burden of sadness and fear they experience and the complex responsibilities they carry.

The aspects of Catholic culture explored in the report include clericalism and the lack of practical structures of accountability. Many research participants spoke about how priests are seen as superior, ‘God-like’, untouchable and assumed to be holy by default. One participant said: “We’ve put people on this pedestal and we’ve left them there”.

Discussing accountability, one priest said: “I think we’re the least monitored, least controlled, least supervised group of people in the whole world.”

The report discusses areas of Catholic teaching and theology which underpin or influence how these aspects of Catholic culture and practice have developed and draws out different interpretations.

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, support is available from Safe Spaces on 0300 303 1056 or visit

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