Religious Privilege: priest confessed to child abuse 1500 times


religious privilege child abuse
St Joseph's Cathedral Rockhampton. Image: Facebook

While religious extremists agitate for legislation extending their religious privilege at the expense of the rights of other Australians, a victim of child abuse is attempting to obtain compensation.

Father Michael McArdle wrote in a 2004 affidavit that he made confessions of child abuse 1,500 times over 25 years. Each time, he walked out of the confessional booth with his sins absolved.

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Rockhampton Bishop Brian Heenan barred McArdle from contact with children in 1996 after hearing allegations from victims. Although McArdle never denied the allegations, Heenan failed to contact the police.

McArdle left the priesthood in 2000. Convicted in 2004 on 62 charges of indecent dealing against 16 children, he received a sentence of six years imprisonment.

He left a trail of victims throughout central Queensland in regional centres like Bundaberg, Rockhampton, and Mackay.

McArdle claimed to suffer guilt over his attacks on children. However, his affidavit reveals that the absolution granted by 30 different confessor priests eased his conscience.

“I was devastated after the assaults, every one of them.  

“So distressed would I become that I would attend confessions weekly…

“[The confession] was like a magic wand had been waved over me”.

A former altar boy, abused by McArdle at the age of 12, lodged a notice of claim with the Diocese of Rockhampton last year. He told the ABC he wants a negotiated settlement for the psychological damage inflicted on him. He said mandatory reporting of confessions of child abuse might have seen McArdle stopped earlier.

The Royal Commission

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse referred at least 309 cases of child abuse in Catholic institutions to the police. The commission found not only abuse but cover-ups and consequent mistreatment of victims.

Likewise, the commission referred Brian Houston of Hillsong for investigation because he neglected to notify the NSW police after his father admitted abusing children.

Reaching out to Brian Houston for comment seems pointless. After all, in 2016, he refused an interview with the NSW police on the subject.

Nor could we consider making any inquiry of Australia’s most senior Catholic. Cardinal George Pell is, of course, in prison for child abuse.

Freedom of religion vs religious privilege

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The Australian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, as it should. The country is also secular, as it should be. However, laws inherited from Britain ensured that throughout our history religious dogma still controlled our lives. Religious concerns dominated our laws on marriage, sexuality, contraception and Sunday trading among others.

Even today, religious extremists, afflicted with a sense of entitlement due to the moral superiority they believe their religion confers on them, seek to enjoy even greater legislated religious privilege. 

They deny their privilege and instead claim not allowing them to compel others to their belief is persecution.

However, the so-called sanctity of the confessional booth is perhaps the most egregious of these privileges. Freedom of religion should not mean exempting one group from the obligations common to other Australians because of some crazy notion of the superior moral judgment of that clique.

Especially in this case.


Why should the cabal most notorious for committing child abuse, covering it up and harbouring abusers, also be the one group entitled not to report child abuse?


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