FRANCIS SULLIVAN. Australian Catholic Church must take abuse commission report seriously or risk irrelevance A REPOST

After five intense years of inquiry and more than 400 recommendations — with 20 new recommendations specifically relating to the Catholic Church — the report of Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is due a considered response.

Many will rush to draw conclusions and to try and sum it up long before it is properly digested. Others will be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of issues that need to be addressed.

What is clear, however, without too much analysis, is this: Children were sexually abused by adults who should have cared for them. These crimes were often covered up, excused or not believed. People in positions of power manipulated the truth, protected perpetrators, lied and obfuscated and blatantly misled the public. Institutional reputations were put well ahead of the protection of children.

More than in any other institution, this narrative is the constant, recurring theme in the history of child sexual abuse in Australia’s Catholic Church.

The factors that gave abusers access to children and enabled their superiors to be complicit in the crimes and concealment have already been well documented.

This Royal Commission confirms previous reports that cite the lack of accountability and transparency within the church’s culture, the propensity for clericalism to create a self-protective caste where power and privilege are the operating principles for addressing conflict and personal promotion, and, finally, where the image of the institution meant more than the welfare of children.

In a sense there is nothing new here.

The current challenge is the struggle to resist the “business as usual” mindset that pervades the attitudes of those who seek to relegate this scandal to history. They take comfort in the church’s statistics that currently indicate that the incidence of clerical abuse of children has all but diminished from its peak in the 1960s to only a few recorded cases in the 2000s.

Whether the 30-odd year lag in reporting abuse impacts on this trend is unknown.

The real issue now is whether the ingrained inertia of the institutional church will take hold as the intensity of this public inquiry wanes.

Will the church become complacent, even almost relieved that there have been no forced resignations from the senior ranks?

Will conservatives seek to peddle a prevailing narrative that pays scant regard to the cultural and sociological factors that have created an institutional climate of arrogant isolation?

Will church apologists once again focus exclusively on the deviancy of perpetrators and ignore the causes and contributing factors of the crimes and cover up?

In Australia, the bishops have no place to hide. This Royal Commission has exposed the dysfunction and obfuscation that typified the hierarchy’s approach to the scandal. It has revealed the parlous state of moral leadership from those purporting to be leaders of character and virtue. It has unravelled a history of hypocrisy, shame and corruption.

The commission’s final report is a litany of challenges for a haemorrhaging church losing credibility and influence as once-faithful people walk away.

The ramifications directly concern the Vatican. Universal church policies and practices, like mandatory celibacy and the seal of confession, are now sharply in the public gaze, and the responses from church leaders so far are garnering little sympathy or support.

These two issues and the response from church leaders are being held up by many as a clear indication of a church that is still out of touch with community expectations and still not prepared to put the safety of children ahead of its own dogma and traditions.

The problem, of course, with the continued intense focus on these issues is that it masks, certainly from the perspective of many, the more significant and game-changing reforms that have been recommended.

For example, recommendations that deal with broader concerns around church governance and the mutual participation of women. If these recommendations are fully implemented, the ramifications will be far more significant than the suggestions around celibacy and the confessional.

So, too, the commission’s recommendations dealing with seminary training, quality of candidates and the professional supervision of priests and religious. If implemented, these suggestions stand a real chance of changing the very nature of the church in Australia, and, in particular, the way in which priests and religious live and work in their communities.

If we are not careful, continued focus on the confessional and celibacy at the exclusion of other major concerns will only strengthen the hand of those in the church that for years have been lampooning the commission as a “get the Catholics” exercise. It will embolden them to do as little as possible in the hope things will return to “normal” as quickly as possible.

Make no mistake. The Catholic Church must reform itself. Pope Francis knows it and so too do many others. Its biggest enemy is itself. How the commission’s report is received will be the litmus test.

It is often said that the church has and will survive any scandal — that it thinks in centuries.

Well, in Australia at least, continuing to adopt that attitude will have it talking to itself in an ever diminishing circle of influence.

[Francis Sullivan is the chief executive of Australia’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council. Previously he was secretary general of the Australian Medical Association and chief executive of Catholic Health Australia. He has degrees in theology and politics and is an adjunct professor at the Australian Catholic University, Canberra.]

This article first appeared in the National Catholic Reporter on 19 December 2017

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Margaret Knowlden

I would like permission to publish the two letters (from Rosemary O’Grady and Bill Burke) in the March issue of ARCVoice, the newsletter of Australian Reforming Catholics.

Margaret Knowlden
Editor ARCVoice

Tel: 02 9488 7927

Thank you Francis for keeping the conversation alive (at least!). For me, one of the nails on this Cross is a word you used five paragraphs into your Repost … it is the word “superiors”. Since when did this word become acceptable to God’s people? The term clearly establishes that there are also “inferiors”. The Institutional Church is a Monarchy … by its very nature it embeds superiority as part of its ‘orthodoxy’. So do many other institutions! As Fr Bob Maguire mused recently to me … what matters is its ‘orthopraxis’. Language is part of that practice. Let’s start… Read more »

Peter Small

Most institutions proclaim that “the institution is more important than the individual”. Most political leaders have an innate grasp of the moment to “throw a man overboard”…….to save their own, or their parties “skin”. Might we not then reasonably expect that after allowing all those caught to be thrown overboard that “business” after a discrete period to let things settle down, might not revert to normal. Normal as being, as it has been practiced for centuries? Lay people have as about much chance of changing the culture of the Church than the rest of us have of getting our politicians… Read more »

Bill Burke

Francis, it would seem from your article that, in your mind, taking the Royal Commission Report seriously entails embracing the Commission’s recommendations and putting them into effect. Certainly, since the presentation of the report your view would accord with much of the published commentary and sentiments revealed in social media threads. But, I would proffer a dissenting position. I suggest that it is possible to take the Commission’s work very seriously, while retaining the right to critically evaluate the utility, aptness and secondary consequences of implementing individual recommendations contained in the final report. The Commission, while in session, provided an… Read more »

Peter Bowron

Bill Burke, your comment about a silent laity touched a chord with me. When various Catholic Bishops came out in strong opposition to the Marriage Equality Act during the plebiscite, notably Bishop Fisher, and rumours of financial funding appeared, my wife and I made a decision to cancel our planned giving for the 4 months of the campaign and direct it to the “Yes” campaign. A gesture. However, I also wrote to our bishop and explained the issue, why I believed being a Christian made it imperative that I support the campaign, and that the plebiscite was a smaller issue… Read more »

Holy Mother Church is already talking to herself and experiencing the diminution of influence which that sort of conduct customarily attracts to the elderly. But I wonder if it is quite right to assert, as an erstwhile friend did, recently, to me, that nobody wants to publish about religion (unless about sex abuse) these days. Without drawing too long a bow, I hope, I feel we can learn from India and the post-Partition experience. Perhaps I mean the entire Partition experience. A multi-cultural nation which had muddled along for centuries was subjected to ill-considered political expediency/ criminal intervention – and… Read more »


Interesting that the Church is a Mother – when being spoken of by Rosemary and others who like to use the Madonna/Female Deity metaphors – but it is the men (in the main – it has to be acknowledged – there were nuns involved, too) who have besmirched it so completely – by their paedophilia and/or by their protection of their paedophile mates. And there is nothing Holy about that “Mother” either. When Francis led a mass in the Basilica of St Peter’s in Rome the other day – celebrating the death of the former Cardinal of Boston who oversaw… Read more »