The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse’s comprehensive and confronting final report rightly focuses on the Catholic Church, with one of the 17 volumes dedicated solely to that institution. The litmus test for the Church leadership in the coming months and years will be the degree to which they act on the Royal Commission’s recommendations.
More than 36 percent of all abuse victims involved in the Royal Commission claimed they were abused in the Catholic Church.
The Royal Commission’s data survey revealed that 4,445 individuals alleged abuse within the Church in the period 1950 to 2010 and 1,880 priests, religious and others associated with the Church were accused of abuse over that time.
Throughout this period Church leaders and their officials gravely mismanaged cases of abuse. They did not often believe victims or their families. They rarely informed the police. They concealed information and protected perpetrators.
The Church, as an institution, acted like any other institution. It risk-managed and protected itself. It deployed rigorous, legal defences and hardball negotiations. It used its might to prevail over victims, even when they knew the abuse had occurred.
This has become a familiar and tragic refrain.
We have learnt much over the past five years, but questions remain.
Most of the case studies involving the Church were about the abuse that happened in the 1970s and 80s – a time when the power imbalance between clerics and the lay community was reflected in unquestioned compliance because ‘father knows best’.
It was a time when secrecy and tribalism warded off critics in a self-serving belief that the Church’s future demanded it.
Had the Royal Commission been called 20 years earlier, perpetrators would have been called to account and exposed, and many, many more victims would have been able to give evidence.
But many have died or are incapacitated and the story of so many risked slipping into history.
That said, we do have a clear view of the culture in which these Church administrators operated. In an environment of clericalism, structural and governance failures, flawed leadership, poor formation and a skewed view of canon law, many abused their power to abuse vulnerable children or to cover up the crimes.
The leadership of an organisation, including the Catholic Church, shapes the assumptions, values, beliefs and norms of its culture. This, in turn, influences how individuals behave, particularly with vulnerable people.
The Commission’s findings paint a picture of an arrogant and hypocritical church, which put the reputation of a priest or brother ahead of the well-being of children who had been abused and those who were at risk of abuse.
Many of the Royal Commission’s recommendations relate to the future policies and administration of all institutions and it called on Church leaders to instigate a major review of diocesan structures and governance.
Governance must reflect the identity, ethos and purpose of what it is to be Church, or things can, and did go very badly wrong.
The Church must not fall into the trap of maintaining a rigid, defensive focus where its mission, as articulated by the Gospel, is undermined by expediency and self-preservation.
Having said that, the Commission commended and affirmed the corporate governance practices across Catholic social services, health and education services, which largely operate under lay leadership and are heavily regulated by external bodies.
These structures are legitimate Church companies that have the same status in the Church as any diocese or religious order.
Clearly, there is much the rest of the institution can learn from how lay-led canonical structures are responding to the pastoral and ministerial needs of local communities.
For 2,000 years important decisions about how the Church operates and its engagement with the laity have been made by a handful of men on behalf of the entire Church.
Clearly, that model doesn’t wash in the 21st century.
The majority of the Royal Commission’s recommendations regarding the Church, called on the Australian bishops to address universal Church issues with the Vatican, including celibacy and the seal of confession.
The litmus test for the Church leadership in the coming months and years will be the degree to which they act on the Royal Commission’s recommendations.
Francis Sullivan has been CEO of the Catholic Church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council since just after the Royal Commission was announced over five years ago. He recently delivered his final public address in Canberra hosted by Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn. You can read the speech here.