JOANNE McCARTHY. Australia’s bishops still don’t get it – things have changed (SMH 13/6/2018)

Everything changed on December 15, 2017 when the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse presented its final report and recommendations to the Australian public. It’s a shame Australia’s Catholic bishops missed the memo.  

The royal commission exposed in sickening, staggering detail the church’s crimes against thousands of children in Australia alone, and its culpability as an organisation that protected criminals and facilitated those crimes.

But the bishops, in response, are acting as if nothing has happened. Sure, they’ve promised change. They’ve released pious statements. They’ve even used the words “humility” and “humbled” in the right context.

But with every move they make, with every step they don’t take, Australia’s bishops show they don’t understand that their relationship with Australians has changed. Has had to change.

In the words of Hunter abuse survivor Bob O’Toole, “They don’t seem to get that they don’t call the shots anymore.”

The church kept its crimes and its criminals secret for decades because it didn’t want the scandal that would damage its authority and power. It wasn’t naivety or innocence – as too many senior churchmen argued over the years – but a clinical, systemic, cold-blooded process designed to protect the “brand”, informed by centuries of “calling the shots” on how other people should live their lives.

All swept away. The secrets aren’t secret anymore. The powerless reclaimed some power by speaking out. And that requires the church and its bishops to cede power, which is where they’re failing now.

In the past week I’ve put questions to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference about if and when it is going to release a report completed by its Truth, Justice and Healing Council three months ago in response to the royal commission’s report and recommendations.

I’m not the only one who thinks the council might have gone much further than the bishops expected in supporting the royal commission’s recommendations for historic change in the church – on governance, canon law, reporting to secular authorities, celibacy, women in leadership positions and the iconic issue of breaching the “sanctity” of the confessional.

The bishops haven’t released it, and based on the pile of words I’ve received in response to my questions, won’t be doing so any time soon. They are consulting with people, and that even includes lay people, they said.

But there’s where the problem lies. The bishops have picked those consulted. Groups like Catholics for Renewal – including academic and former priest Peter Wilkinson, who produced a ground-breaking report in 2017 that revealed exactly how radically the church has to change to prevent abuse occurring in future – are out in the cold.

On May 31 Pope Francis issued a letter to Chile’s bishops after a dramatic escalation of public anger because of decades of child sexual abuse and cover-ups. The Pope could not have been more clear about what he expected of bishops and, more importantly, of all Catholics.

He reminded Chile’s bishops of a speech he made to young people in Santiago in January, in which he urged “all Christians” to “not be afraid to be the central drivers of the transformation that is being demanded today”.

The church needed lay people to “demand some explanation” and have the courage to tell church leaders “This is the path I think we have to take”, the Pope said.

In response to questions where I quoted the Pope’s letter, Australia’s bishops did the written equivalent of coughing politely, noting they did talk to lay people and “All voices have their rightful place in the conversation”. But they won’t be meeting with Catholics for Renewal, which has strongly supported the release of the Truth Justice and Healing Council report and root and branch reforms of the Catholic Church all the way to the Vatican.

I don’t understand why individual bishops don’t speak out. What exactly is the worst that can happen, given the Pope reminded Chile’s bishops that the “struggle against a culture of abuse” required them not to “supplant, silence or ignore all the faithful”? He reminded the bishops the “people of God has no first, second or third class Christians”.

In other words, get off your high horses.

Australia’s bishops are trying to control what they think they can control now – the release of a church-commissioned report that is probably damning, who they consult with and how they’re prepared to deal with governments.

As if they have that right. When the church facilitated crimes, when it acted as if it was above Australian law for too long, it lost that right.

It has to establish a new relationship with the Australian people, based on acknowledging it has lost power – not because society has outgrown religion but because with child sexual abuse, the Catholic Church debased people’s faith in God.

The federal government must demand a response from Australia’s bishops now, and the release of the Truth Justice and Healing Council report so that all Catholics – all Australians – can contribute, if they choose, to building a new church, for that is what’s required.

Keeping that report a secret is a litmus test for bishops, if only they had the sense to realise it.

Joanne McCarthy from the Newcastle Herald is the winner of the 2013 Gold Walkley.  

In the last seven years, she has written more than 350 articles about the sexual abuse of children, primarily by Catholic clergy in Newcastle and the Hunter Valley. It was her relentless campaign for a royal commission that prompted a letter from Julia Gillard.

“Thanks in very large measure to your persistence and courage,” the former prime minister wrote, “the New South Wales Special Commission of Enquiry and the Federal Royal Commission will bring truth and healing to the victims of horrendous abuse and betrayal.”

McCarthy’s editor at the Newcastle Herald, Chad Watson, describes her as “a beacon for Australian journalism.”


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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10 Responses to JOANNE McCARTHY. Australia’s bishops still don’t get it – things have changed (SMH 13/6/2018)

  1. While there is no question about compensation and reconciliation with the victims of abuse , we can apply the same arguments to a whole range of issues. People in denial about what has been done and continues to be done to our First Nations people; People in denial about Climate Change while our water disappears along with the Barrier Reef; breast- beating and lip service about homelessness ; spending billions on wars but hot accepting that the people who flee from these regions are genuine refugees while 30% of our returning troops are thrown on the scrap heap with little help while we build multi million dollar tourist attractions in France. We know what Monash, Jacka and Pompey Elliot would think. The problem with the Catholic Church exists in every institution as well as our professions. It is not the few rotten apples but the barrel itself. Patrick O’Farrell in his history of Church History published forty years ago feared for the Church because the current crop of bishops then were nice , benign men who may not be up to the task of what was required of them. We see the character of men like Bishop Long of Parramatta who point the way of what may be possible along with the reforms in process about governance and accountability. What has been ignored in balanced analysis is that most leaders grew up in homes shaped by two major wars and a depression which added to a hierarchical church designed by the Roman Empire coupled with a worldview where their culture was oppressed and supressed. So the attitudes of ” keep it in the family ” ; ” sweep it under the carpet”; ” defend the family regardless” were attitudes shared across society whether you were a priest, a doctor , a lawyer , a politician, a policeman or in the media. This does not excuse what happened but you cannot consign it to the rubbish heap as you assess true culpability. We are judging issues with hindsight by 2018 values and ignoring history . If you choose this path it opens a Pandora’s box which goes right back to our original theft of land legally held by other people and mean the destruction of many values and symbols we hold dear. There is saying “that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones” which applies here . If we want real change , we need to change the ” barrels” otherwise we will soon be back at the same issues within a generation. To change the barrels , you need to understand the invisible elements that make it work or cause problems to develop .

  2. Avatar Ed Cory says:

    Well said Joanne.

  3. Avatar Nick Agocs says:

    this problem has been around for a very long time and the catholic bishops as well as the other religious bodies have been aware but they insisted in covering it up. So what is new in the present case of the slothful action of the catholic bishpos?

  4. Avatar Jim KABLE says:

    Brava, Joanne: It’s becoming clear that most of the church hierarchy in Australia are actually reptiles. These serpents merit our considered opprobrium. Thank you for revealing the machinations going on behind the closed doors.

  5. Avatar Bill Burke says:

    Joanne McCarthy provided an inestimable contribution to shining a light on what for many was unimaginable, but for victims was an all too real violation of body and spirit, and, in spite of knowing of the suffering and hurt of victims, an occasion for moral cowardice, hypocrisy and cover-up by many senior clergy.

    I spent several weeks following testimonies during the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry focussing on particular cases of abuse in the Newcastle-Maitland Diocese. A sidelight of this activity was the chance to observe the respect and affection many of the victim/survivors had for Ms McCarthy. And at times, as I listened to Counsel Assisting painstakingly assist a clergyman to confront the trail of equivocation and evasions that had been his evidence thus far, it was abundantly clear that this event was happening, in no small measure, as a consequence of Ms McCarthy’s remorseless investigation and extensive publication.

    That said, there are several reasons for being unable support Ms McCarthy’s current focus on bishops’ who don’t get it and don’t get round to acting as fast as she would wish.

    It was the Royal Commission who chose to make wide ranging recommendations on the structure, governance and practices of the Catholic Church. It seems a little truculent to complain about inactivity and unresponsiveness – given the limited time that has transpired since the the Final Report and Recommendations were handed down.

    Moreover, many individual recommendation deserve ongoing scrutiny. Taking just one as an example – the requirement that priests report any knowledge or suspicion of paedophile behaviour and failure to do so will constitute a criminal offence.
    This issue requires full examination, but, for now, I note some spin-off complications.

    If the once confidential content of religious confession is to be subject to criminal charges, then, what will become the modus operandi of crisis intervention agencies, such as LIFELINE and workers at the coal face with at-risk minors.

    Will a telephone Counsellor be required to interrupt a caller who appears to be admitting to paedophile behaviours with the advice that this call is now being monitored by the police? The technology is available: The caller could be traced and apprehended before the conclusion of the call!

    And what of workers in sexual health centres and Government funded outreach agencies who are in daily contact with at-risk minors. Details of the ages of sexual partners and actual living circumstances are often conspicuous in their absence from the child’s file: Cultivating the at-risk child’s trust and working towards a harm minimisation strategy are the usual justifications for these tacit “exemptions.”

    Are we going tolerate these secular based “confessions,” whether anonymous or face to face, while religious confession is to lose its exempt status.”

    If these issues are not thoroughly examined now; if the reasoning of the Royal Commission is not tested with the rigour it requires, then, the beneficiaries will be lawyers contesting the matters in the High Court.

    • Avatar Jim KABLE says:

      Seems to me more angels dancing on pinheads casuistry going on here, Bill. It’s a nonsense – the whole confessional thing in any case. For those who believe in God there is actually direct prayer – as an earlier Catholic priest well understood. I have long thought of it as a kind of cathartic release of guilt over lots of relatively trivial matters in any case – serving a role not unlike that of psychiatrists or psychologists in these more secular times – or – and this is the disturbing part – operating to uncover the secrets – the shameful (if trivial) secrets of the priest’s/bishop’s parish/diocese. A kind of moral blackmail opportunity. In any event – that contemporary priests and bishops would not see that the protection of children against paedophile priests was paramount – suggests that Joanne McCarthy is on the right track in her attacks. Let the priests and bishops now prove her wrong!

      • Avatar Rosemary O'Grady says:

        Confession – the ‘sacrament’ of Penance- ‘good for the soul’. Also good for Control. School a people/congregation/’Faithful’ in the ‘belief’ that they are ‘sinners’ and must needs be ‘released’ from their ‘sins’ (and whoopsy daizy: we’ve got just the educated fullas to do it for you’!) and you have a guilt-driven, submissive, fearful, conspiratorial, crazed population whose lives are mired in immaturity and, contrary-wise: arrogance and ignorance. What a witches’brew. What champions those who challenge the whole mess. Joanne- her ‘saint’ the ‘maid’ of Orleans who lived by virtue and conviction and was burned at the stake for the truths she told – and is to be ‘pardoned’ 600 years after her murder?! – don’t imagine it cannot take centuries more for the Bishops and other hierarchs to catch-up to what errors they continue to make today.

  6. Avatar Kimball Chen says:

    The release of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council report should happen. However, this correspondent does not help by coupling that call with inflammatory commentary which is wrong and unfair. First, what evidence is there that bishops “facilitated” crimes? Acquiesced maybe a la Archbishop Wilson of Adelaide. Try reading what Bishop Long of Parramatta has to say on the subject. Tarring all Catholics with the same brush is both unfair and offensive. It does not help the cause of those bishops intent on assisting victims when journalist produce stuff like this which other bishops wave around as evidence of the media being “against them”. Please act as a sniper rather than an out of control machine gunner.

    • Avatar John NOBEL says:

      Citizens now have social media, beyond media, and this will just add more pressure on the rulers and organised religion to get out of the way with repressive democracy, and head towards direct democracy instead.
      Hmmm, it sounds like there’s plenty of commission material to go to the police/ DPP.
      Next ready proceeds of crime legislation for clusters of abuse.
      The fed gov should force the split of religion from charity, and charge the former like the organised religion businesses they are.

    • Avatar Rosemary O'Grady says:

      May I quote another P&I contributor in this context? Lynne Newington says it, exactly, as a message to folk who take this (Kimball Chen) position: “Catch Up”!!!
      Acquiescence, averting the eyes, covering-up, turning-away – that is exactly what ‘facilitation’ is. There’s another name for it: collusion. Or, as the New Testament had it: hypocrisy. Tarring all Catholics with the same brush is, regrettably, exactly what is going to be needed unless and until they clean-up their Institutions and stop drawing-aside their skirts. And the decent people among Catholics will embrace this opportunity to embrace change and pity the wounded and the casualties of this diminished population of souls.

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