Last Monday, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse commenced its three-week examination of the causes of child sexual abuse and cover up in the Catholic Church in Australia over the last 60 years. The statistics were horrifying.
Every case represented a person who claims as a child to have been abused by a person of authority in a Catholic institution — whether it be a school, a parish, an orphanage or a children’s home.
Whichever way the statistics are interpreted in comparison with other institutions, they are appalling. The Catholic Church harboured child abusers in the past, and in numbers which now shock Australians, whether they be Catholic or not.
We need to hold the victims clearly in focus, not as statistics or as hard cases, but as individuals, erstwhile vulnerable members of the church community, citizens able to walk tall again because they have been heard, believed and affirmed. Francis Sullivan got it right when speaking for the Church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council. With great compassion and insight, he told the commissioners:
‘We are advised that the data does not distinguish those claims that were substantiated from those that were accepted without investigation. In an ideal world, the data would distinguish between the number of allegations where offenders made admissions, or were convicted, and those where an investigation substantiated the complaint.
‘Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that the proportion of priests since 1950 against whom even claims of abuse have been made undermines the image and credibility of the priesthood. Likewise, the very high proportions of religious brothers with claims of abuse only further corrodes the community’s trust.
‘The data tells us that over the six decades from 1950 to 2010 some 1265 Catholic priests and religious were the subject of a child sexual abuse claim. These numbers are shocking; they are tragic and they are indefensible.’
The next day, on the first regular sitting day of Parliament for this year, Bill Shorten took the opportunity just before question time to declare, ‘It is past time for Cardinal Pell to return to Australia and to account to the commission in person.’
“Twenty years ago, I daresay there would have been a chorus of objections to the Greens’ motion, led in the first instance by the various bodies representing the nation’s lawyers. But this time, there was silence.”
The Greens took the cue and introduced a motion into the Senate the day after, acknowledging that 4444 people made abuse allegations against the church in the last 35 years. Having noted that ‘allegations of criminal misconduct against Cardinal George Pell have been forwarded to the Victorian Office of Public Prosecutions by the Victorian Police‘, they called ‘on Cardinal George Pell to return to Australia to assist the Victorian Police and Office of Public Prosecutions with their investigations into these matters’.
Pell came out fighting, as he has so often in the past whenever the Greens are agitating an issue from a perspective he finds most disagreeable. His office in Rome issued this statement: ‘The Greens have opted for an obvious political stunt while knowing full well Cardinal Pell has consistently cooperated with the Royal Commission and the Victorian Police.
‘The suggestion that Cardinal Pell should be accountable for all the wrongdoings of Church personnel throughout Australia over many decades is not only unjust and completely fanciful but also acts to shield those in the Church who should be called to account for their failures … The Greens’ anti-religion agenda is notorious and most fair minded Australians would see this motion as pathetic point-scoring.’
Whatever the Cardinal’s concerns about the Greens’ political agenda, it was the Labor leader Bill Shorten who opened the door on this approach the previous day. And once the Greens introduced the motion, not one senator raised an objection or qualification.
Twenty years ago, I daresay there would have been a chorus of objections to the Greens’ motion, led in the first instance by the various bodies representing the nation’s lawyers. But this time, there was silence except from the Australian Council of Civil Liberties. Their long-time president Terry O’Gorman issued a statement rightly claiming ‘that the Australian Senate motion was yet another example of politicians politicising the criminal investigation and related court processes’.
O’Gorman warned, ‘Great care has to be taken, particularly by politicians using the “coward’s castle” of Parliament, to prevent the current Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse from becoming a witch hunt‘. No other Australian has been as closely scrutinised and publicly examined by the commission as Pell. O’Gorman said it was ‘imperative that politicians and other community leaders not whip up hysteria in relation to matters arising from the Royal Commission as that will negatively affect balanced and serious consideration by the community of the Royal Commission in respect of its final recommendations’.
“Even Rome needs to accept that a more transparent, accountable and inclusive hierarchy would have spared many children the horrors of abuse. The temptation to find excuses is always there.”
I then appeared before the Royal Commission to discuss the most arcane of issues. They summoned me to meet with them as part of a panel to discuss the seal of the confessional as they try to determine ‘to what extent has the operation of the Sacrament of Reconciliation contributed to the occurrence of child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions or affected the institutional response to this abuse’. Though not an academic theologian nor an experienced parish priest, I happily accepted the commission’s invitation. I told the commission:
‘We’ve all been confronted with these horrific statistics … You as a Royal Commission put the spotlight on the Church, quite rightly. You ask, well, why are things out of kilter in the Catholic Church? You look at those things which are distinctively Catholic, particularly those which might look a bit weird to those who aren’t Catholic, so you draw up a list of those things, including confession. Now, it seems to me that where we’re all on the same page … we want to get this right in terms of the future protection of children.’
The Catholic Church has had a problem with child sexual abuse and it needed state assistance and community pressure to acknowledge publicly the extent of the problem and all its ramifications. Hopefully the Royal Commission can formulate universal principles and standards which can be applied to all institutions ensuring better protection of children. The state has a legitimate interest ensuring that Church structures and procedures comply with the principles and standards set down in laws enacted by parliaments.
But it will be a matter for the Catholic Church to determine how best to comply with those principles and standards, consistent with Church teachings and structures. At the commission, I offered this suggestion to Justice McClellan and his fellow commissioners:
‘You should separate out what you might recommend in terms of legislative change, but then, regardless of what you might recommend about legislative change, recommendations directly to the Catholic Church as to how to proceed to correct certain evils and abuses that you have become aware of in the historic practice of confession.’
“The Royal Commission has less than a year to run. Once it reports, the Australian Church will need to change radically, or become a despised, diminishing sect.”
I then made this observation:
‘Though most of you are not members of the Catholic Church, nor pride yourselves as theologians, you have been the de facto confessors of the nation on this particular issue now for four years. You have far more experience pastorally on these things than even all these learned professors and bishops I am surrounded by will ever have.’
Even Rome needs to accept that a more transparent, accountable and inclusive hierarchy would have spared many children the horrors of abuse. The temptation to find excuses is always there. Past victims and children in Catholic institutions now and in the future will be best helped if the commission can set down appropriate standards and protocols and if the Church, convinced that it is not being singled out for adverse treatment by the commission or politicians, can review its own structures, theology and doctrine to ensure compliance with those standards and protocols. This will be best achieved if the Parliament backs off and awaits the formal findings of the Royal Commission and if the Victoria Police and the DPP apply the usual standards to any allegations now surfacing about Pell.
The agenda for the promised 2020 synod of the Australian Church cannot be determined and managed only by those who cling to what they regard as the non-negotiable aspects of Church hierarchy and governance, when those aspects are shown to have contributed to past failures in transparency and accountability. Those failures then compounded rates of child abuse which were shocking, tragic and indefensible. The Royal Commission has less than a year to run. Once it reports, the Australian Church will need to change radically, or become a despised, diminishing sect.
Frank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia. This article first appeared in Eureka Street on 12 February 2017.