On Friday afternoon, I called into the Canberra Magistrates’ Court to watch an hour or two of proceedings at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The court was packed with lawyers. These are shameful times for us Australians as we realise how great has been the problem of child sexual abuse in our society, and presumably still is. They have been especially shameful times for us Catholics as we realise what a problem this has been in our schools, welfare institutions and parishes. Thank God, we have the help of the State to investigate matters thoroughly and transparently. We know that no royal commission can solve all the problems. No royal commission ever has. Think just of the royal commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody which promised so much. The Aboriginal imprisonment rate is higher now than it was before the Commission was held. But hopefully with this royal commission, there can be new laws, new rules, and new protocols which can help to reduce the incidence of child abuse in all our social institutions, especially those which work most closely with vulnerable children. These new laws, new rules, and new protocols will apply just as much to our church organisations as to any other social organisations.
Much of the Commission spotlight has been on institutions in our own Church. Let’s hope and pray that everyone from our Church who is involved in any way with the Commission comes with a commitment to honesty, transparency, justice, compassion and healing.
But we are not just citizens of the state. Our organisations are not just like any other organisations. We profess to be the Church, the people of God. Seeking to follow the way of Jesus on the path of our Catholic tradition, we pride ourselves on caring for the poorest and most vulnerable; we hold ourselves out to each other and to the world as people who nurture trust and the finest values being applied and lived universally.
No matter what the findings of any royal commission, and no matter what the new rules, protocols and procedures, the spotlight of this commission brings us back to ask ourselves how we are responding and living as God’s people. We know that the way of Jesus requires us to focus first and foremost on the victim, the vulnerable child. We know that any abuse affects not only the victim, but also their loved ones and family members. We know that the effects of the abuse can continue for life; it can completely wreck a life. We understand how over time the victim might come to be and to feel alienated from us, the people of God. And yet he is or she is one of us, one of the flock. The abuser is also one of us, one of the flock. He, and it is usually he, is often in a position of authority and trust, providing the opportunity to abuse and fracturing the trust and professed values of whole community.
For too long, those in authority in our Church but also many people in our society were not aware of the reality or effects of abuse, or they were slack and incompetent in dealing with abusers. The result has been that the abusers, like rotten apples in the box of fruit, have infected all around them. It’s like throwing a stone into a pond. The ripples go everywhere. The abuse has wreaked havoc in our institutions as well as in the lives of those who are victims. There’s damage everywhere.
No royal commission can put all these things right. As well as pledging ourselves both to co-operate fully with the processes of the commission and to renew our institutions so that their rules and procedures reflect the values and moral norms we profess, we need to attend to the more radical call to redemption in today’s scripture readings – readings which reflect the life of God in relationship – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – in relationship with each other, and in relationship with us. Jesus tells Nicodemus that “God sent his Son into the World not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved.” As a Church we do stand condemned in the eyes of many of our fellow citizens. Some of them are anti-Catholic, but most of them are not.
We can pick ourselves up from this, confident that the Lord is in relationship with us providing a way forward to salvation rather than condemnation. We can understand how many victims might now feel alienated from us, but our door must always be open, not just providing what justice and the law require, but also offering a homecoming and grateful acknowledgement of the added burdens they carried so that we might come back to our true selves as the people of God. Any victim, like the unknown solider, “is all of them and he is one of us”.
What is harder for all of us at this time is also to acknowledge that the perpetrator is one of us. We harboured him, we provided unwittingly or foolishly the opportunity for his repeat offending. Ours, as Exodus reminds us, is “a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness and faithfulness”. We cannot be whole again, our institutions cannot be trusted again, our leadership cannot inspire us again, until we face the enormity not just of abuse but of abject failure to counter it even when the signs, evidence and complaints were there. Having faced the truth and having accorded justice, we might again embrace God and each other with tenderness and compassion, kindness and faithfulness.
After communion, you might like to offer your own reflections. Meanwhile in this Eucharist, may the grace of our Lord Jesus, Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” be with us all, especially with the little ones who have been wronged and who have had the courage to speak out.
After communion, a couple of parishioners spoke. One reflected that she had just returned from overseas and was grateful to be an Australian, a citizen of a country where there could be a royal commission, putting a light on the darkness. She recalled the song about setting the downtrodden free. And this is what we must now do. Another lamented that the horse has already bolted, and that with the effects of clericalism, control had been taken away from the local church and from the people of God these last 50 years. It was time for the laity to be resolute so that the stable door might be fastened again.
Fr Frank Brennan SJ
Professor of Law
Australian Catholic University