Exceptional sexual harms: the Catholic Church and child sexual abuse claims in Australia

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Questioning of Catholic Church leaders in the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has revealed a distinct sense of immunity and lack of responsibility for the crimes of church personnel, which has resulted in stymied justice for complainants in sexual abuse lawsuits. In this article, I explore this immunity by examining it in the context of treatments of sexual harms in other areas of private law, particularly religious exceptions to discrimination law, by which religious organizations are granted immunity from the modern rationale of the harms of discrimination on the grounds of sex and sexual orientation. In situating child sexual abuse claims in the broader sphere of private law, I aim to reveal law’s incoherent logic of sexual harms, and its implications for justice. The example of religious exceptions illustrates an incoherent problematization of sexual harm and responsibility in contemporary legal and political systems that aim to uphold modern values of equality and dignity while sustaining incompatible doctrines of religious autonomy.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)734-754
Number of pages21
JournalSocial and Legal Studies
Issue number6
Early online date10 Nov 2017
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • institutional child sexual abuse
  • religious child sexual abuse
  • religious exceptions to discrimination law
  • sexual harms
  • vicarious liability


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