From The Monthly: Letting Catholic priests into Australia was a mistake

There are around 3000 Catholic priests in Australia, plus a few hundred retirees. Of these, an astonishing one in 20 has been charged with child sexual abuse offences. And according to the best academic experts, the true number of offenders is around one in 15.

The opinions expressed in the article, that Catholics shouldn't have been allowed into Australia, is a satire, but there's no indication that the statistic itself is satirical.

The former statistic (1 in 20) was repeated in a tweet by the Australian Sex Party. It may have been repeated elsewhere, though I'm not certain, and the latter statistic (1 in 15) was interpreted as fact in this tweet.

Have 5% of Australian Catholic priests been charged with child sexual abuse offences?

Related question: Is there systemic sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests?

2 Answers 2


This one surprised me.

I had started writing an answer suggesting that this was most likely a misunderstanding of a claim by Professor Des Cahill to a Victorian state inquiry in 2012:

AT LEAST one in 20 Catholic priests in Melbourne is a child sex abuser, although the real figure is probably one in 15, the state inquiry into the churches' handling of sex abuse was told yesterday.

RMIT professor Des Cahill said his figures, based on analysing conviction rates of priests ordained from Melbourne's Corpus Christi College, closely matched a much larger American analysis of 105,000 priests which found that 4362 were child sex offenders.

Note that this (a) a statistical prediction, based on assumptions, not a simple count, and (b) it was an estimate of abusers, not the number of priests charged with abuse.

This means the first part of The Monthly's claim was false, and the second was at least based on an estimate.

However, as I continued the research to back up these figures, I found that figure on charges may well be similar to the estimate.

Let's start with the easy part: How many priests are there in Australia?

The ABS reported in 1994 that there were 2,005.

Catholic Australia have a web-site that claims there were 3,085 in 2009, and that it has generally been dropping. It includes at least 495 retired priests in that number - maybe more. It references "Official Directory of the Catholic Church in Australia 2009-2010, pp.735".

That is a large difference, and it is difficult to see how to reconcile these figures. It may be a matter of definitions (e.g. whether to include retirees) or one or both being inaccurate.

The figure of "around 3000 Catholic priests in Australia, plus a few hundred retirees" seems to on the high side, given retirees are counted separately, but it isn't a gross exaggeration, especially given the rubberiness of the figures.

"Of these, an astonishing one in 20 has been charged" would suggest at least 150 currently living priests have been charged.

The Catholic Church acknowledges 29 living priests (and an additional 30 dead) as "guilty".

The Catholic Church has released the names of 29 Melbourne priests who it acknowledges are guilty of sexually abusing children. [...]

The church revealed the names of 29 of those priests on Thursday, including repeat offenders Desmond Gannon and Michael Glennon.

[...] However, it says it will not name the remaining 30 priests because several were dead when allegations were made and they did not have a chance to respond.

The church is also withholding the names of priests who were not charged after police investigations.

Twenty-nine is a serious number, but to get to the 150 figure would require over 120 people to have been charged and found not guilty.

If we were to take only the cases the church has admitted to, the answer would appear to be no.

Wikipedia puts the number of priests charged, as of 2011, at "over 100" over all time, but unfortunately uses a broken link to a partisan site as evidence.

As of August 2011, according to Broken Rites, a support and advocacy group for church-related sex abuse victims, there have been over 100 cases in Australia where Catholic priests have been charged for sex offences against minors, as well as others involving non-custodial sentences and inconclusive proceedings.

I was ready to dismiss that evidence, when I found the equivalent reference on Broken Rites Australia's new web-site:

This page gives a few examples (not a complete list) of Broken Rites cases involving Catholic clergy and religious Brothers in Australia. This page is confined to Broken Rites cases - that is, cases in which victims have been supported by Broken Rites. The complete database of Broken Rites cases is NOT available on the internet.

So this list is a subset (selected cases) of a subset (those involving Broken Rites), since 1993 (which means it may include a non-trivial amount of dead abusers.)

They list, by name, 226 (former) priests. Some of the cases (e.g. Br Michael Evans) committed suicide or otherwise died, avoiding charges, but a vast majority of the reports here involve convictions. An additional 5 were acquitted (but should be included in the "charged" count)

To draw a firm conclusion would be pushing the boundaries of "Original Research", especially because all of the figures here are hard to compare (living versus retired versus dead, published versus unpublished, supported by Broken Rites versus independent, etc.)

However, it seems that there is considerable evidence that the number of living priests charged in Australia approaches - if not exceeds - the 1 in 20 figure originally quoted.

  • 5
    Considering the influence a priest normally wields in it's community, those numbers are scary. Thanks for your research!
    – T. Sar
    Commented Nov 24, 2016 at 19:05

Referring to RMIT professor Des Cahill's 2012 analysis, the answer is yes to the '1 in 20' figure based on a population of 378 Corpus Christi priests graduating between 1940 and 1966 out of which 14 were convicted of child sexual abuse, and also the church authorities had admitted that another four who had died were also abusers which gave a rate of 4.76 per cent. This percent is rounded off to 5%.

The 1 in 20 is based on the analysis I have given in my submission of the priests from the dioceses of Victoria and Tasmania who trained at Corpus Christi College from 1940 to 1972. I chose that period because some from the very early period are still alive — they are very old — whereas those ordained in 1972 are now over 65. In reaching a figure I think it is important to have a data baseline, and it is very hard to achieve, but when we did that calculation and on the basis of data that I and other colleagues who are former priests know about and from information available on the Broken Rites website we were able to come up with that figure. Source: Inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other organisations

He also believes that the 1 in 20 figure is a minimum. Per his guesses, it may also be 1 in 15 but not as high as 1 in 10.

I remain comfortable with that figure, and the incidence is much higher than in the general population and much higher than for any other professional group, but I think the incidence must be regarded as minimal for two reasons. The 2010 statement of Archbishop Denis Hart refers to 60 cases — somewhat more than my figures — but it is unclear whether this includes sexual misconduct with young adults. Secondly, a University of Sydney study by psychotherapists who had counselled abusing priests and brothers states that many of their counsellees had not been formally charged, so that leads me to believe that the 1 in 20 is a minimum. It may be 1 in 15, perhaps not as high as 1 in 10, but we are guessing, and I think for the purposes of this committee we should not be guessing. Source: Inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other organisations

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