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Federal

Nov 22, 2012

Royal commission will make churches pray for parishioners

Church attendance rates are low in Australia, but if Ireland is any sort of example, expect them to plummet even further during the royal commission in to child abuse, writes Crikey intern David Donaldson.

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The Catholic Church appears certain to continue haemorrhaging followers, thanks to the prospect of years of daily opprobrium over the scandals that will come out of the royal commission. The experience of Ireland following their own commission is instructive, though already low church attendance rates here will soften the impact.

The similarities between the developing scandal here and the long-running one in Ireland are striking. The country famous for its Catholic piety began its own high-profile commission in 1999, with a final report being released three years ago. The principal findings were that the Catholic Church had been culpable in knowingly covering up decades of s-xual, physical and emotional abuse committed against children in its care, despite earlier claims of ignorance from church hierarchy. The organisation was found to have consistently placed its own interests ahead of those of the children it was supposed to be looking after, allowing offenders to move between parishes and avoid scrutiny, despite documents showing the chances of recidivism were high.

In line with the rest of the West, Ireland had already begun its move towards secularism before the scandal broke. Religiosity nonetheless remained high, and the country was seen by many in the Vatican as the last bastion of Catholicism in the developed world.

The horrific revelations of systematic abuse and cover-up that came out of the Ryan commission have, however, hastened the Irish move away from Catholicism. The result has been a dramatic loss of trust by many Irish in the church, which had maintained a tight grip on national politics since independence. Between 1974 and 2008, mass attendance dropped by around 50%.

A website, CountMeOut.ie, was even set up in late 2009 to assist outraged Irish through the technical process of formally disaffiliating from the church. Around 12,000 people downloaded the official defection form before the church in Rome changed canon law to make it impossible to disaffiliate.

In the short period from 2005 to 2012, the number of Irish claiming to be “a religious person” fell dramatically from 69% to 47%, despite another survey finding that 84% described themselves as Catholic. The discrepancy highlights the potentially misleading picture of piety given by merely asking respondents their religious affiliation, as responses also tend to capture those identifying with a particular sect more for cultural or ethnic reasons than the strictly doctrinal.

Ireland comes second only to Vietnam in the speed with which its citizens are abandoning faith.

But while Ireland’s Catholic Church is experiencing a dramatic fall from previously high levels of public confidence, Australian figures on religious attendance are already low. A 2009 survey found only 17% of Australians attend a religious service at least once a month, compared with 23% in 1993. This included 33% of Catholics, 13% of Anglicans and 47% of those who considered themselves “other Christian” (which covers both evangelical and Orthodox).

Today, only around 8% of the population is to be found in church on a typical Sunday.

A 2003 study concluded that while although Catholics still comprise by far the largest group of weekly churchgoers, their numbers are also the fastest declining of the major sects. The latest census shows a rise in Australians describing themselves merely as “Christian”, which, along with the growth of “no religion”, signals a move away from official religious structures.

The low level of religiosity might also suggest “fair weather” Christians have already jumped ship, sociology of religion expert Professor Alan Black reckons. “Much will depend on the specific findings of the royal commission, and the responses by the churches to those findings. I assume that some people have already changed their churchgoing patterns in the light of their perceptions of the attitudes and actions of church officials,” he told Crikey.

Dr Philip Hughes, a senior researcher at the Christian Research Association, agrees. Hughes told Crikey that “confidence levels in the churches have been falling and are already at a relatively low point”. While abuse uncovered by the royal commission “may discourage people from attending a church who are not already attending, it is unlikely that it will affect the majority of church attendees who identify with a specific local church community”.

Instead, Hughes argues the commission’s main effects will be focused on those parishes confronted by scandal: “Most people who continue to attend churches identify with the local community rather than with denominational structures. If a local church community comes under scrutiny, it may well affect attendances there.”

Notwithstanding the complaints of some prominent Catholics at being unfairly targeted, Hughes thinks outrage will likely be focused towards the Catholic Church in particular. “I would not expect to see the royal commission as having as much impact on other denominations,” he said.

But one thing is certain — regardless of the findings of the commission, pews will continue to empty in the coming years. According to Hughes, the current attrition rate of 1% per year may even double: “Over the next five years, we may see the monthly church attendance continue to decline, perhaps to around 12 or 13% of the population rather than 15%.”

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