Faith-based organisations in Aotearoa New Zealand have long traditions of providing residential care in a variety of settings, including children’s homes, foster homes, boarding schools, and homes for unmarried mothers. It is estimated that around 205,000 people passed through these residential faith-based care settings between 1950 and 1999. Abuse in faith-based care has also occurred in other contexts, for example at church, in the presbytery, or in survivors’ homes.
The journey into faith-based care has varied. For some survivors, time spent in faith-based care was temporary, and resulted from choices made by their parents to place them under the care of faith-based institutions. An estimated 83,000 people spent time in faith-based boarding schools between 1950 and 1999, and many other survivors have spent time under the pastoral care of churches and their clergy in non-residential settings. A significant number of survivors told us of abuse in churches, non-residential schools, faith-based schools or other settings such as scout camps.
For other survivors, placement in faith-based homes was a matter of life circumstances. For example, we heard from survivors who were placed in faith-based children’s homes when their parents were abusive or could not care for them. We have also heard from women survivors who lacked support when they became pregnant and were sent to homes for unmarried mothers. In 1977, about a quarter of children living in faith-based homes were State wards.
Leaders in faith-based communities hold unique positions of power over their congregations. They are often viewed with great respect and deference and placed in positions of great trust, because of their roles as spiritual guides and “representatives of God”. This can create circumstances in which abuse can occur – for example, parents may be more willing to leave their children alone with religious leaders than other adults.
Some researchers have suggested that elements of institutional culture within faith-based organisations also tend to support abusive attitudes and behaviours. Researchers referred to elements such as some churches’ attitudes to celibacy, obedience to God, suppression of individual will, hostility towards children, attitudes to gender and sexuality, and ideas about ‘the transcendent power of suffering’ as factors that support abusive attitudes and behaviours.
We heard from numerous survivors who experienced serious physical, sexual and emotional violence in faith-based settings such as churches, boarding schools, and children’s or foster homes. One survivor described her parents regularly leaving her in the care of the priest Michael Shirres, who sexually abused her over a period of eight years. She said her parents were “the most Catholic people I knew” and would not have believed that a priest was capable of abuse.
Another survivor, John, described his attempts to disclose abuse by a Catholic religious brother: “My father was very religious and he didn’t believe me. He said words to the effect, ‘a man of the cloth would never do anything wrong and I never want to hear about this again’.” John’s relationship with his father deteriorated from that point, while the abuse continued and escalated.
Ms K, who was abused by two Marist Brothers, told us:
“As a little child, my life was totally engrossed in church, school and home – all under the banner of the Catholic Church. My abusers were part of that. I went to church and there they were, I went to school and there they were, I went home and there they were. I had no safe place to go. All had been violated.”
Internationally, inquiries have identified the systemic response of faith-based institutions to attempt to deny or cover up abuse. Churches have conducted their own investigations, rather than reporting issues to police. Their independence has also provided some protection from scrutiny.
Survivors recounted similar experiences to us. Some survivors who spoke to the Commission said they had attempted to disclose the abuse they experienced, but felt they were ignored by church leaders and other authorities. Several referred to priests, minsters, clergy or religious people being offered retirement or encouraged to move in order to escape detection. One survivor referred to this as “the geographical cure”.
Some survivors who were abused in faith-based schools were so traumatised from the abuse they were effectively denied an education, and therefore opportunities to earn incomes or have the career they sought.
Another recurring theme was of racism in faith-based settings, particularly in homes for children or unmarried mothers. Survivors spoke of Māori and Pacific children being treated more harshly than non-Māori, for example being singled out for physical assaults. Some also spoke of Pākehā children having greater chances of adoption, and Māori and Pacific children being at greater risk of being placed in long-term care.
Next: The journey for people in State care