In 2014 two senior members of the Marist and Christian Brothers in Australia told Justice McLellan, the Chair of the Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commission that in the 1980s the brothers would not have regarded touching a student’s genitals as a crime but only a “moral failure”.2 McLellan asked Br Shanahan.
Q. Can you explain how the Orders would have brought themselves intellectually to that position, describing it only as a moral failure and not a criminal offence? How would they have arrived at that position?
A. No, I can’t explain it.3
This paper is an attempt to explain it: how bishops, priests and religious all over the world came to regard the sexual abuse of children, not as crimes punishable by the State, but as moral failures that should be dealt with by treatment, and by dismissal from the priesthood or religious life only as a last resort.4 The explanation lies in a gradual but radical change of culture within the Catholic Church that took place in the latter part of the 19th century that can be traced through changes in canon law.
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