Soul searching: Australia loses faith as sexual abuse cases mount

BALLARAT, Australia (Reuters) - Ballarat was the sort of regional Australian town where mothers with Irish surnames prayed their eldest sons would enter the priesthood, and fathers would reach for their soft brim hats whenever Catholic clergy walked by.

It’s now the sort of place that is losing its faith, compounded by the imprisonment of one of its most famous sons, Cardinal George Pell, who was sentenced on Wednesday to six years in jail for sexually abusing two choir boys in the 1990s.

Pell has maintained his innocence and his lawyers have appealed his conviction.

Allen Stephens, a 76-year-old Ballarat resident, said Pell’s conviction was evidence of a broken institution.

“The whole community of church-goers is diminishing dramatically,” said Stephens, who like many of his era was baptised as a child but is not active in the church.

“The abuse has certainly hastened the lack of interest in the church.”

Disillusionment with the Catholic church in Ballarat is reflective of a wider national trend, according to researcher IBISWorld, fueled by an inability by traditional Christian groups to attract younger people as well as anger over the spate of sexual abuse cases that have come to light in recent years.

“Traditional churches are beginning to consolidate, with many churches with low attendance numbers merging with other nearby churches,” IBISWorld said.

Catholicism remains Australia’s largest religious affiliation at 22.6 percent of the population, census data shows, but that is down from above 27 percent a quarter of a century ago.

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Mass attendances have been in a long-term state of decline, according to Catholic agency Pastoral Research Office, with the drop-off particularly evident in younger people.

The Catholic Church established deep roots in Ballarat, now a town of 100,000 people 120 km (75 miles) west of Melbourne, in the late 1800s after Irish immigrants flocked in during a gold-rush.

Irish Catholic-run schools also filled a void left by cuts to government-funded education.

Less than a quarter of residents now identify as Catholic in Ballarat. The town saw an abrupt, 10 percentage point increase in residents with no religious affiliation to 37.7 percent in just five years to 2016, the most recent census data shows.

Several Ballarat residents told Reuters even though they did not regularly attend mass, they had still identified as Catholic until as recently as last month when Pell was revealed as a sex offender after a suppression order banning reporting of his trial was lifted.

“That’ll do me - I’m out,” said one Ballarat resident, passing the local cathedral, who declined to give his name.


While Christianity is the world’s biggest religion, its historical stronghold in Western Europe has become very secular, according to the Pew Research Center.

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But Christianity has “marched southward” to grow rapidly in places like sub-Saharan Africa, the U.S.-based group said, and is practiced with more fervor in Africa generally and Latin America.

Parish administrator for Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Ballarat, Father Justin Driscoll, said the once dominant role of institutional religion in much of the West had given way to a less centralized model with more input from parishioners.

He said the cathedral was focused on giving all of its members a voice with equal participation over decision making.

“I think Pope Francis is leading us in helping us to recognize some of the serious weaknesses around clericalism,” Driscoll said.

Pope Francis has attacked clericalism, which he defined as a view that priests and bishops are the elite who exercise power as opposed to offering humble and generous service.

John Dickson, a Sydney-based historian and pastor, said there was now no social pressure to attend church in modern Australia, prompting many nominal Christians to cut ties.

“You don’t have the periphery anymore,” Dickson said.

He said the church now needed to recover its own soul, and adapt to live in a culture where there was no prestige attached to being a Christian.

“Christians need to recover what the first Christians faced - they had no power or legislative clout, they just got on with serving, persuading and praying,” Dickson said.

Reporting by Jonathan Barrett in BALLARAT; Editing by Lincoln Feast