FRANK BRENNAN. A Catholic reflection on the Royal Commission as the curtain closes on Act One.

On Friday, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which has been part of the Australian political and ecclesial landscape for the last five years, will cease to exist.  The commission will present its report to the Governor-General, and the commissioners will return to private life or to their previous public offices.  The task of implementation will fall to governments and institutions such as the Catholic Church.  The task of public scrutiny will fall to parliaments and the media but without the ongoing forensic activity of a royal commission.  The commission has unearthed a continent of human suffering and mountains of institutional obfuscation.  The task of change within the Catholic Church will fall mainly to committed Catholics, and not just the clerics. 

Already and thankfully, many institutional responses which were routine in the past are now unthinkable because they did not put the interests of children first.  And yet, as a Catholic priest, I am still feeling perplexed.  My church, like all institutions caring for children, contained child abusers.  My church, more than many other institutions caring for children, failed to weed out those abusers and even harboured them in the name of maintaining the public standing of the institution and in the hope of protecting the abusers, giving them a second, third or tenth chance.  I think these lessons have been learnt.  BUT.  And it’s a big BUT.

Even those bishops like Frank Little, Ronald Mulkearns and Brian Finnigan who have been most stringently criticised by the royal commission were not seen to be evil men.  And they could not conduct themselves today as they did thirty years ago.  Other institutions including the police and the legal system, the media and our parliaments were not as alive to the issue of institutional child sexual abuse back then as they are now.  The public culture, the public understanding, the public sympathy for children and the public suspicion of institutions including churches have all changed.

But has my church changed sufficiently?  Will it change sufficiently?  From time to time, I have been critical of the royal commission for purporting to rule on church issues such as celibacy and the seal of the confessional and for applying a different standard to church officials than to others – demanding that church officials comply with the idealistic imperatives of the gospel while expecting public servants and others to comply only with comprehensible civil standards of justice, legality and transparency.

All power to the royal commission for insisting on standards of truth, justice and transparency expected from all institutions caring for children.  I suspect that the Catholic Church will have difficulty measuring up to these standards while internally there remains such an unquestioning deference to the hierarchy, as has been revealed in many of the royal commission’s case studies.  Consider just the case study on the diocese of Ballarat and the performance of Bishops Finnigan and Mulkearns.  The commission concluded:

‘This case study exposed a catastrophic failure in the leadership of the Diocese and ultimately in the structure and culture of the Church over decades to effectively respond to the sexual abuse of children by its priests. That failure led to the suffering and often irreparable harm to children, their families and the wider community. That harm could have been avoided if the Church had acted in the interests of children rather than in its own interests. The response of the Diocese to complaints and concerns about four of its priests was remarkably and disturbingly similar. It is apparent that the avoidance of scandal, the maintenance of the reputation of the Church and loyalty to priests alone determined the response.’

For most of the time under study, the diocese was led by Bishop Ron Mulkearns.  His cousin Michael Morwood, who has been a very outspoken critic of the Church and much of its moral teachings, describes Mulkearns as ‘a thoroughly decent man.  There was not an ounce of evil intent in him.’  Prior to the release of the commission report but after the media attention during the Ballarat hearings, Morwood wrote: ‘Ron Mulkearns stands guilty of acting in accord with what the Institutional powers asked of him. I believe he so trusted the sacredness of that Institution that he was blinded and acted misguidedly. And I have no doubt he acted, relying on advice he trusted, according to what he thought was right.’

In September 2016, Michael Costigan addressed the Golden Jubilee conference of the Canon Law Society of Australia and New Zealand.  Mulkearns had been a founding member of the Society.  Costigan reminisced: ‘Speaking from my knowledge of Ron Mulkearns during the sixty-seven years in which we knew each other, I completely endorse his cousin’s tribute to this “thoroughly decent man”.’    Costigan offered this observation: ‘Of the late Bishop’s unquestioning and constant devotion to the papacy I have clear memories. Nevertheless, he did admit to me in conversation when I stayed with him in Aireys Inlet several years ago that his regard for Pope John Paul II diminished after the Polish pontiff had turned a deaf ear to his request for advice about the way to handle clerical sexual abuse in his diocese.’

Unquestioning loyalty to the institution, to the hierarchy and to the Pope should no longer be espoused as a fine Catholic attribute.  It might not result in personal evil.  But it sure results in institutional failure with catastrophic results for many people including vulnerable children.  And it results in episcopal failure which does not pass the pub test.  Brian Finnigan was Vicar General in Ballarat for eight critical years when Mulkearns was Bishop.  He was later Executive Secretary to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, capping his clerical career as Auxiliary Bishop in Brisbane.  This was the royal commission’s damning summary of his evidence: ‘Bishop Finnigan’s evidence was highly unsatisfactory. He gave the clear impression that he was seeking to protect himself and the Church or the Bishop at the time, and he made no effort to give clear and honest evidence. The result is that we have not accepted Bishop Finnigan’s evidence except where it is corroborated by other evidence or where it is inherently probable and not contradicted by other evidence.’

In 2013, after a Victorian parliamentary inquiry made adverse findings against Mulkearns who pleaded cognitive incapacity to give evidence, I attended the episcopal installation of Christopher Prowse as Archbishop of Canberra in the Canberra Cathedral.  There on the sanctuary with most other Australian bishops and the Papal Nuncio was Bishop Mulkearns in all his episcopal finery.  I was shocked.  I took what for me was an unprecedented step.  I wrote to Mulkearns saying: ‘I suggest, with respect, that it is no longer appropriate for you to participate in such liturgical celebrations or social events connected with such celebrations.  I know this suggestion will be hurtful and might appear somewhat presumptuous coming from a priest who does not know the full story.  I make the suggestion because you chose not to appear before the recent Victorian parliamentary inquiry into child sexual abuse in the churches and because the parliamentary committee then had cause to make adverse comments about your conduct as a bishop.’  Mulkearns was hurt by my suggestion and pointed out that no one else had raised the matter.  I daresay if he were alive today, I would not be the only one to raise concerns about his ongoing involvement in church public life.  We Catholics all need to get better in our firm, respectful and demanding encounters with our hierarchy.  If we don’t, we will be part of an institution which fails adequately to comply with decent community standards on all manner of things, including the protection of children.  And that will do nobody any good, not even our bishops.  Now for Act Two which is set within the Church which I love and serve, but hopefully with eyes wide open assisted by the State and community which demand accountability and transparency when it comes to the care of children.

Frank  Brennan SJ is Chief Executive Officer, Catholic Social Services.


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Point of ‘Law’: there is a requirement to implement terms within a specific period (quite a long one); many treaties/conventions are signed but never ‘ratified’ – they ‘lapse’. Australia has a reputation for this little sneak’s gambit. But I’m speculating that Holy See shall outlast us (Australia) at this particular empty gesture. ‘Ratification’ leads to implementation in domestic/municipal law – if all parties (several in a federation) concur & enact. Imagine the opportunities for ‘negotiation’. Recently an erstwhile friend called me ’embittered’! I’m not ’embittered’ – I’m Experienced.

Michael Flynn

I hear the Holy See has signed the international legal convention on the rights of children and I expect there is a legal duty to implement its provisions in the universal church. Perhaps here in Canberra Goulburn our Archbishop could legislate within his delegated authority in Catholic schools so we comply with the international covenant. We have a Human Rights Commissioner in the ACT and perhaps she could help us?
Michael Flynn,Downer ACT

It appears that it is illustrative of the HS’s committment to honour its undertakings under the Convention that it shall be according the late Cardinal of Boston, Bernard Law, full pontifical obseqs tonight our time. On Vatican, or Italian soil, I wonder?

Time-poor on this response I, yet, want to add: – why the adjectival-cringe when writing about perps and cover-uppers (legally : ‘conspirators’)? Burke did not live in vain: all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing – or words to that effect. People have begun to see this in an age of mass-communications. When I do take your commentator’s advice and write to the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, I shall file the response, if any, with earlier responses from that organ, over the years – and make comparisons. That should be entertaining. Certain… Read more »

Oliver Clark

Prof Cahill comments: “The underlying issue whose answer”r is better found in psychological studies and organisational culture is: why over the centuries has much destructive behaviour been perpetrated by decent people in the name of righteous ideologies, religious principles and nationalist ideologies? In our recent RMIT report on Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church, which partially includes some of our consultancy work for the Royal Commission, Peter Wilkinson and I use the social psychological theory of Selective Moral Disengagement of Albert Bandura to explain the socio-cognitive process of bishops and religious provincials and how the regulation of humane conduct… Read more »

Grant Allen

Some of our Bishops have already stated their support for compulsory celibacy and the retention of the seal of confession where child sexual abuse is mentioned. I disgree with them and have expressed my views by emailing the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. I request that others do the same.

A small question to anyone, but especially to Fr Frank Brennan who says there will be civil disobedience if the state tries to change confessional ‘laws’: Does anyone smell a rat when the Church rejects recommendations for changes to cultural elements, but the ‘Church’ unanimously and vigorously accepts changes to how victims are (financially) compensated. I may be being (perhaps overly) suspicious about this unanimity, applauded also by almost everyone else because it is a scheme which thankfully acknowledges the need for redress. However, has anyone done the Maths regarding how much it would cost the Church compared to if… Read more »


I note that it took a non-Catholic PM to set up this Royal Commission – but that its time since has been surrounded by PMs/Leader of the Opposition figures – all of them Catholic – happily front-and-centre Catholic. What I don’t trust are the shadowy church figures behind – from pulling strings to allow them to wriggle away from properly acknowledging their abuses/their responsibility for the broken lives and suicides and to making the institutional and structural changes required to bring transparency and proper legal accountability from here on. (And similarly for the other organisations named in the Royal Commission… Read more »

Thank you, Des. There are some brilliant/very important questions and perceptions throughout your comment here and your report. As my own study on clergy sexual misconduct against adult has developed I have come up with a new perception with its on questions, which would parallel many of yours. The main two elements I am beginning to realise is that we need to look at ALL clergy sexual activity if we want to get the full picture of child sexual abuse by clergy. I am hearing over and over again, the question as you put it so well: “why over the… Read more »

One more question, Frank, and it relates to my other comments: Do you believe that “thoroughly decent men” (bishops included) can still be considered so, (especially by those with a more liberal attitude towards clergy sexuality and sexual activity), but still have ‘sexual secrets’, even just one, (not so much from other clergy because such activity is relatively common), and be fearful enough of public knowledge of such activity or sexuality, to be inactive or immobilised when it comes to dealing with aberrant priests? The concept of ‘thoroughly decent’ would be one easily embraced by those with compassionate attitudes to… Read more »

“many institutional responses which were routine in the past are now unthinkable”…” I think these lessons have been learnt”. I wish I had your Catholic optimism, Frank. I have heard from the very beginning of the Royal Commission statements from some Bishops and Catholic education leaders that the Church will just ride this commission out. The reason I don’t hold your optimism is that I know of two recent and one current court cases where it appears that absolutely nothing has changed at all when it comes to lived reality. One case involves child sexual abuse in a school (2016-17),… Read more »

Des Cahill

My apologies! Our RMIT research study is available on the website of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council under the heading of ‘other research’. I want to thank Francis Sullivan for his totally principled and Gospel stand throughout the length of the Royal Commission. He has been like an Old Testament prophet advocating the cries of the victims. I also want to congratulate Chrissie Foster who with her late husband have been valiant pursuers of the truth despite the unbearable tragedy of their two daughters. I also have two daughters. It was her book in 2012 that triggered my dedication… Read more »

Emeritus Professor Des Cahill

In his article, Frank Brennan in his commentary on the finalising of the Royal Commission has drawn attention to the focus of two recent findings into the Melbourne and Ballarat dioceses on the action and lack of action of Archbishop Little, Bishop Mulkearns and Bishop Finnigan. May I also draw attention to the Irish government 2011 report into the Diocese of Cloyne where Brian Finnigan also featured somewhat negatively in an altercation between Cloyne and the Archdiocese of Brisbane over an offending Irish priest. The underlying issue whose answer is better found in psychological studies and organisational culture is: why… Read more »