Australian Catholics Leave the Church As Sexual Abuse Cases Increase

13 March, 2019

Australian Cardinal George Pell was sentenced Wednesday to six years in prison.

Pell is a former treasurer at the Vatican. He was found guilty of molesting two boys who belonged to a cathedral choir in the 1990s.

The judge said the crime showed "staggering arrogance" – in other words, a strong sense of power and a shocking lack of feeling for others.

Pell and his lawyers say he is innocent and are asking for another trial.

Australian Catholics lose their faith

But some Roman Catholics in Australia are not waiting until another ruling to form an opinion. The sentencing of Pell marks the end of their religious faith.

Jonathan Barrett, a reporter for the Reuters news agency, visited an historically Catholic area in the Australian state of Victoria.

The city of Ballarat is home to about 100,000 people. Many settlers from Ireland went to Australia in the 1800s to search for gold. They brought their Catholic faith with them.

For generations, children there were baptized as members of the Catholic Church, attended Catholic schools, and raised their own families to be Catholic.

But Census records from 2016 showed the number of people in Ballarat who say they do not belong to any religion rose sharply. Today, fewer than one in four people who live there say they are Catholic.

And even some who said they are Catholic rarely attend church services, Reuters learned. But they still thought of themselves as Catholic – until last month, when Australia's top Catholic official was publicly identified as a sex offender.

"That'll do me – I'm out," said one man while he passed the local church. He did not give his name.

Another Ballarat resident, Allen Stephens, spoke more about the issue. He said Pell's case showed the Catholic Church is broken.

Stephens, who is 76 years old, was baptized Catholic but is no longer an active member. He says the abuse has been part of what has made him and others lose interest in being Catholic.

Catholic Cardinal George Pell is seen leaving the County Court in Melbourne, Australia, February 26. 2019. Picture taken February 26, 2019. AAP Image/David Crosling/via REUTERS
Catholic Cardinal George Pell is seen leaving the County Court in Melbourne, Australia, February 26. 2019. Picture taken February 26, 2019. AAP Image/David Crosling/via REUTERS

Catholics across Australia are losing their faith

Loss of faith in the Catholic Church is not limited to Ballarat. Catholics across Australia are losing their faith.

Census records show that, in the early 1990s, more than 27 percent of the Australian population said they were Catholic. Now, about 22 percent say they are Catholic.

A Catholic group called the Pastoral Research Office adds that, over the years, fewer people have been going to church services. Young people especially have stopped going.

However, the U.S.-based Pew Research Center notes that Christianity is increasing in strength in some areas, including parts of Africa and South America.

A Catholic clergyman in Ballarat suggests that Catholicism is changing. Father Justin Driscoll is an office administrator with Saint Patrick's Cathedral. He said strong, centralized religion used to be very powerful in Western countries. Now, he says, church-goers have more of a voice.

Driscoll says he is trying to follow Pope Francis in this way. The pope has said that high-ranking religious officials should offer generous and humble service – and not act as elites who exercise power.

Kelly Jean Kelly adapted this story for Learning English. Her story was based on reports from Reuters and the Associated Press. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

molest v. to harm (someone) through sexual contact

choir n. a group of singers especially in a church

faith - n. strong religious feelings or beliefs

baptize - v. to officially make someone a member of a specified Christian church through the ceremony of baptism

resident n. someone who lives in a particular place

generous - adj. freely giving or sharing money and other valuable things

humble - adj. not proud : not thinking of yourself as better than other people