Cardinal George Pell, the Archbishop of Sydney and the Catholic Church’s highest-ranking Australian official, will appear before the Victorian inquiry into child s-x abuse this afternoon. For many victims it’s long overdue. Will the growing disquiet with the church and its handling of p-edophilia in the priesthood translate into fewer bums on pews?

Catholic Church attendance has been steadily declining since the 1950s in Australia, when about 74% of Catholics attended Mass regularly. In  2001, 15.3% of Catholics reported going to Mass weekly. By 2006 that had fallen to 13.8%, and in 2011 just 12.5% of Catholics said they regularly trundled down to the local church. About one-quarter of Australians are Catholic, according to the most recent census.

Until now, the fall-off in church attendance has largely been attributed to a modernising and increasingly secular society. Bob Dixon, director of Catholic research organisation the Pastoral Research Office, wrote a 2007 research paper entitled Catholics Who Stopped Attending Mass and says, at that time, child abuse wasn’t on the radar.

“In the 2007 study the only people who gave the s-x abuse crisis as the key reason why they stopped going to church were either in a parish where one of the priests was a perpetrator or they knew somebody who was a victim. It required personal experience of the crisis,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s still the case, but I suspect it is not.”

To find out just how much Australian Catholicism could be hurt by the current scandal, the Australian faithful could look to Ireland, which began its own public soul-searching related to p-edophilia in the priesthood around 2009. Like Australia, Ireland’s Mass attendance has been falling since the 1950s or 1960s, when the s-xual revolution, increased urbanisation and liberalising attitudes encouraged some young people to find other things to do with their Sunday mornings.

“The interesting thing about this is that is started in the 1960s and it started with a younger generation — people who were coming to the age of 18 in the late ’60s who had been through Catholic education and found it easier to start disregarding the church,” said Malachi O’Doherty, whose 2008 book Empty Pulpits: Ireland’s Retreat from Religion details Catholicism’s loosening grip on Ireland.

But the number of those staying away turned from a trickle to a flood following the 2009 Murphy Report, the result of a government commission into child abuse in the priesthood. In 1984, about 90% of Ireland’s Catholics attended weekly Mass, but this figure drifted downwards and levelled off at about 64% in the late 1990s. In 2009 about 52% of Catholics went to Mass once a week; by 2012 it was 34% (Ireland is much more Catholic than Australia, with 84% of people in the Republic ticking the “Catholic” box on the most recent census form).

O’Doherty says before the Murphy Report, there was some awareness of priests abusing children, but the problem was not seen as systemic and was not affecting Mass attendance much. “Catholics knew this was happening, knew this had happened, but thought that it was small scale,” he said.

However, the government commissions and the Murphy Report rocked the Irish church to its core. “What people now realise is that the scandal is not what they thought it was in the 1990s, a few predatory p-edophiles who got themselves into the priesthood, but that there’s a systemic problem throughout the whole church. The country was gobsmacked by the scale of this, the depth of it,” O’Doherty said.

And it wasn’t just young people who decided to stop going. “You began to meet people in their 60s and 70s who would say, ‘I can’t have anything to do with this, I am disgusted by this, I’ll say my prayers at home … I’ll continue to live a religious life, but I want nothing to do with the church’,” O’Doherty said.

O’Doherty says the election of Pope Francis has helped the church regain its footing somewhat in Ireland, with much of the blame for the scandal laid at the feet of former pope Benedict and Francis seen as a fresh start. And with an uptick of migration into Ireland (at least until the brunt of the GFC), those taking Communion in a church in Dublin on a Sunday were increasingly likely to be Filipino or Polish.

In Australia, too, Catholics from overseas are taking up their places on pews, with 23.6% of Catholics in the 2011 census born overseas, 17.9% of them from non-English-speaking countries. But with the royal commission on child abuse set to dominate headlines and link the church and unspeakable crimes for several years to come, can the Australian Catholic Church be saved?

Peter Fray

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