The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse:
Findings and Recommendations for Religious Institutions

In December 2017, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse released its final report containing the findings and recommendations of its five-year inquiry. In that report and also in earlier publications, the Commission identified various contributing factors to the onset and persistence of child sexual abuse in various institutions, including religious institutions, and made recommendations for curtailing and preventing such abuse.

The purpose of this client briefing is to provide our clients with an overview of some of the key findings and recommendations of the Royal Commission inquiry as it related to religious institutions. These findings and recommendations not only provide context to the new and upcoming child protection legislation in South Australia (to be dealt with in Client Briefing 2 in this series), but also shed light on appropriate preventative and responsive measures for religious institutions in this challenging area.

Royal Commission Findings

The Commission addressed three key areas in its findings regarding religious institutions: culture, governance, and theology. Some of the findings and recommendations are summarised below.


The Commission identified the following cultural factors as tending to perpetuate and contribute to child sexual abuse within religious institutions –

  • a separation between the institution and the outside world;
  • use of secrecy and “in-house” methods to address complaints, such as:
    • moving an accused religious leader to a new location, with no monitoring or consideration of the risk;
    • minimal or no formal disciplinary processes;
    • the perpetrator being instructed by the institution to resign or retire quietly;
    • ‘legalistic’ responses implemented with minimal transparency;
    • ‘generic apologies or no apologies’ to victims; and
    • ‘failing to appropriately recognise the long-term and devastating impacts of child abuse on victims and their families’;
  • providing an unsuitable environment for the identification of abuse by others within the institution or for victims to make disclosures of abuse;
  • low levels of women involved in governance and leadership;
  • conflicts of interest in the investigation process;
  • the reputation of the institution being prioritised over the protection of children;
  • “pattern[s] of inaction” in responding to complaints of abuse;
  • limited support provided to victims and survivors during any investigation or proceedings;
  • lack of education provided to children, families and those working in religious ministry regarding child sexual abuse issues.


The Royal Commission noted how the governance of a religious institution may contribute to the occurrence of child sexual abuse as follows:

  • Institutions constituted by independent, autonomous or decentralised governance structures are more susceptible to the following issues –
    • lack of accountability and scrutiny of religious leaders by the institution leading to unchecked use of power;
    • leaders choosing to ignore or opt out of necessary child safety measures which are recommended by the institution;
    • inconsistent and ‘ad hoc’ approaches to child safety across the institution;
    • lack of authority at national level to keep leaders accountable;
    • theological differences across the institution as to the implementation of child safety measures.
  • Where religious institution have a hierarchical structure –
    • the decision-making of senior leaders may be difficult to challenge including where leaders decide not to adopt child protection measures;
    • there may be a lack of flexibility on the part of leaders to change ineffective policies around child protection.
  • Patriarchal structures and the limited role of women within leadership.


The Commission identified some theologically-based issues as potentially increasing the risk of child sexual abuse within religious institutions:

  • leaders within religious institutions elevated to a status above lay people, leading to unchecked power of leaders;
  • considerable leniency given to perpetrators on the basis of forgiveness and repentance;
  • theology and doctrine may be misinterpreted (whether deliberately or otherwise) and misapplied to justify or minimise actions of the perpetrator or discount the victim’s complaint.

Royal Commission Recommendations

The Commission recommended that religious institutions treat the ‘best interests of the child’ as the primary consideration and recommended a consistent implementation of the 10 Child Safe Standards across the institution (the ‘Standards’) which act as a bench mark for all institutions. The Standards may be summarised as follows:

  1. child safety is imbedded in institutional leadership, governance and culture;
  2. children participate in decisions affecting them and are taken seriously;
  3. families and communities are informed and involved;
  4. equity is promoted and diversity respected;
  5. people working with children are suitable and supported;
  6. processes to respond to complaints of child sexual abuse are child- focused;
  7. staff are equipped with the knowledge, skills and awareness to keep children safe through continuing education and training;
  8. providing physical and online environments that minimise the opportunity for abuse to occur;
  9. implementation of child safe standards is continuously reviewed and improved;
  10. policies and procedures document how the institution is child safe.

The Commission also recommended that the following preventative strategies be adopted by religious institutions:

  • that they work with selected state oversight bodies to implement the 10 Child Safe Standards within the institution and its affiliates in a consistent manner;
  • that leadership training in the area of child protection be provided to religious leaders prior to and following appointment in religious leadership roles;
  • that education be provided to children within the institutions regarding child safety issues;
  • that all religious leaders be accountable for their actions to an authority or body, for example a board of management or council;
  • that all individuals in religious ministry receive oversight and annual performance appraisal;
  • that consistent codes of conduct be put in place for lay people and those working in religious ministry;
  • that relevant experts and professionals from outside the institution be engaged to develop child safe policies, systems and practices; and
  • that appropriate and consistent policies be put in place regarding conflicts of interest in dealing with child sexual abuse complaints.

The Commission recommended that Responses subsequent to a complaint of child sexual abuse should include:

  • where the complaint is against someone in religious ministry within the institution:
    • an initial risk assessment and, where the complaint is plausible and where the person against whom the complaint is made may be in contact with children as part of their role in the institution, removal of that person from their position while the assessment or investigation is being conducted;
    • the complaint being assessed on the balance of probabilities having regard to the nature, subject matter and seriousness of the allegation;
    • in the case of the allegation of abuse being substantiated or a person being convicted on that basis:
      • that person should be stood down from their position in religious ministry immediately;
      • that person should not be allowed to hold themselves out as someone with religious authority and should have their religious status removed;
    • where the complaint is against a lay person within the institution, an assessment of the risk the person poses to the religious community and appropriate measures taken to mitigate that risk.


This client briefing is not legal advice but for information only.

If the information contained in this client briefing has raised some concerns about your current arrangements and you would like legal advice, please contact our office on (08) 7120 9000 and ask to speak with either Geoff Adams (Director).

We look forward to being of assistance to you.