Reports of abuse were filed against hundreds of clergy members and others in the Roman Catholic Church in New Zealand dating back to the 1950s, according to figures released this week to a royal commission, which for the first time capture the pervasiveness of abuse accusations in the church there.
Between 1950 and 2021, there were 1,680 allegations of abuse reported against diocesan clergy and members of Catholic religious orders or associations, according to data from Te Ropu Tautoko, a group coordinating between the commission — the highest form of investigation in New Zealand — and the Catholic Church.
The “sobering data” uncovered the scale of abuse within the Catholic Church, Katherine Anderson, a lawyer assisting the commission, said in a statement. “The research is startling, and the heartbreaking reality is that helpless and vulnerable children and adults sit behind these facts and figures.”
Accusations were levied against 14 percent of all diocesan clergy in New Zealand, according to the figures, many of them between the 1960s and the 1980s, with a majority of instances involving children at educational or residential facilities under the church’s supervision. Over half of all abuse reported involved sexual harm or other physical, emotional or psychological abuses. Others involved the failure to act on complaints.
Still, a support network for victims called the data the “tip of a huge iceberg.”
“We have no mechanism to verify the accuracy of those numbers. We cannot confirm what has been put in or left out,” said Christopher Longhurst, a national leader for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Most of the group’s members, he said, had not officially reported their abuse. According to the group’s own estimates, for every complaint received, between six to ten people had a similar experience but never lodged a complaint.
An official for the Catholic Church said the statistics on abuse were “horrifying and something we are deeply ashamed of.” The official, Cardinal John Dew, who is president of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference, added, “I firmly hope that facts like these will help us to face the sad reality. The Church will learn from this and affirm its commitment to the work of safeguarding.”
In 1,296 of the cases, accusers named a person when reporting abuses. In one instance, 74 allegations of abuse were made against the same person, the figures said. About 14 percent of all reports documented were linked to Marylands Special School and Hebron Trust, two Christchurch facilities for disabled or at-risk young people.
The inquiry comes as countries around the world have been investigating allegations of sexual abuse by clergy members in the Roman Catholic Church. An independent commission in France last year estimated that more than 200,000 minors over the past seven decades were sexually abused and in many cases silenced when they spoke up about their experiences. In Australia, a similar commission in 2017 found an epidemic of sexual abuse of children and urged Roman Catholic officials to abolish mandatory celibacy for priests.
The work of the New Zealand commission, which started in 2018, will continue with a public hearing, set to begin next week, that will hear accounts of those who say they experienced abuse under the care of the Catholic Church. The commission is expected to deliver a full report on the abuses by next year.
Two Catholic Church brothers, Rodger Moloney and Bernard McGrath, have already been convicted of abusing children at Marylands Special School and Hebron Trust.