Catholic Church and the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Feb 13, 2017

“It would be easy to write the problems off as a few ‘bad apples’;  however, the problems that have brought the [Catholic] Church to the very edge of disaster and beyond, trashing its reputation as a moral leader, were never just because of a few bad apples. The problems were institutional and cultural.”  

The following are Extracts from a submission by Patrick Parkinson to the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Issues Paper 11. 

The Church’s governance structure can best be understood as a mixture between ecclesiastical community and feudal principality. The theology of the Church, particularly after Vatican II, reflects the former. The governance structure of the Church still reflects the latter.

The governance system of the Church is, rather literally, medieval, notwithstanding reforms introduced by Vatican II. Its character still reflects the way in which the various kingdoms and other state entities of medieval Europe were governed before the emergence of modern democratic institutions. The Pope was once the absolute ruler of Italian territories, known as the Papal States. That territorial governance now extends only to the confines of Vatican City, in which the Pope has absolute executive, legislative and judicial authority. The model nonetheless applies beyond the walls of the Vatican. The Pope has executive, legislative and judicial authority for the Church worldwide, supported by the institutions of the Vatican.9 He may share that authority with the Bishops collectively, to some extent, but that is more accurate as a statement of the Church’s theological self-understanding, than it is of its actual governance structure. Neither the doctrine of the separation of powers nor the idea of democracy have had much purchase, even after Vatican II.

While the Pope has supreme authority, bishops are also lords of their domain. Under the ultimate direction of the Pope and the subsidiary authorities of the Vatican, each Bishop has complete legislative, executive and judicial authority within his own diocese, subject to the constraints of Canon law.10 To be sure, the modern Bishop has delegates, advisory groups, business managers and others, but he does not share decision-making power with them except to the extent that he does so voluntarily. The Cardinal may be a prince of the Church, but he has no authority over the Dukes, Counts, Marquises and other nobles of the Church – that is, the local bishops and archbishops.

It is a mistake therefore to think that Archbishops have any authority over diocesan bishops, or that Cardinals in a given country have any authority over Archbishops. Their authority is at the most based upon prestige and perhaps some influence in the Vatican. There is not a hierarchy of governance within countries or regions.

Religious orders are likewise relatively autonomous. They are not subject to the Bishops, or Archbishops, or the regional Cardinal. If a religious Order priest runs a parish, or a religious brother or sister holds an office within a diocesan structure, then he or she is subject to the Bishop to that extent, but not otherwise.

Religious orders are answerable to the Pope, who is advised by a body within the Vatican. Many religious Orders have an international leadership, other than the Pope, to which the Australian leadership is subject. For example, the Christian Brothers, which were founded in Ireland at the beginning of the 19th Century, have four Provinces- Oceania, Europe, North and Africa. Each province is led by a Province leadership team. The entire congregation of the Christian Brothers operates under the Congregation Leader who is based in Rome.

It follows that there is quite simply no management structure within the Australian Catholic Church beyond the conferences of Bishops and religious Leaders. Nor is there majority voting. Either each diocese or religious order agrees to go along with the consensus, or it does not. There is no general synod, no parliament and certainly no democracy.

Put differently, the Catholic Church has a large number of middle managers and a CEO, but lacks an effective senior management structure to act as an intermediary between one and the other. What senior management structure there is exists only in the various Councils and departments of the Vatican, and that management system might be regarded as woeful – as the Royal Commission’s Case Study on Father Nestor illustrated,ll and as is illustrated by quite recent scandals such as that of the Vatican Bank. Nor is there a collective decision-making structure which can bind dissenters to a majority position other than through the rare decision-making Councils called by the Pope. Perhaps this balance between central authority and local autonomy was a necessity in 14th century Europe, and worked well enough in that time. As a governance structure for a worldwide Church in the 21st century, it leaves much to be desired.

Bishops and Leaders come and go. Some are excellent, others indifferent, and others worse than that. For the purposes of the Royal Commission, the Australian Bishops and Leaders have come together to establish the Truth, Justice and Healing Council, which has played a very constructive role in the Royal Commission’s work; but it would be a mistake to think that any submissions it makes, or commitments it offers, carry the Church’s collective imprimatur. Even if all Bishops and Religious Leaders at a given date signed up to offer commitments to the Australian people, these would not, and could not, bind their successors. That is the governance problem at the heart of Catholicism.

The ultimate test of whether the Royal Commission has achieved much is that institutions are forever changed in its wake. Across the spectrum of institutions, both government, and non-government, and across the country, there is much ground for optimism. Lessons have been learned, not least because the Royal Commission has forced so much that was shrouded in secrecy into the cold light of day. Even institutions that may not have done the right thing for the right reasons have at least been shamed now into doing the right thing.

I have absolutely no doubt that within the Catholic Church, there are some new and dynamic leaders who will forge a pathway of change within their dioceses and religious Orders. Two of the younger Archbishops, in particular, come to mind. The Church is also blessed with many fine lay leaders, both male and female, some in positions of great prominence in the Australian community. They could offer outstanding leadership to the Church nationwide if given the opportunity.

However, I must reluctantly caution against an assumption that just because the Royal Commission has done its work, that all institutions have changed and that none will fall back into old ways of doing things when the spotlight ceases to be upon them. The Royal Commission has had to be very selective in terms of its case studies. In the Catholic Church, the great majority of dioceses and some male religious Orders with apparently large numbers of alleged offenders, have escaped the spotlight. No doubt they are breathing a sigh of relief.

I would be more optimistic if the gross systemic failures had been decades ago – before 1996 for example. I would be more optimistic also if the attempts at minimization of the problem and cover-up were not so very recent. However, it is only in 2012 that in response to a parliamentary inquiry in Victoria, Catholic Church entities in that State produced a document called Facing the Truth which seemed to me to do anything but. The line seemed to be a familiar one that discovery of the problem of child sexual abuse has been quite recent (from the late 1970s onwards), and that when it was discovered, the Church acted, albeit imperfectly. It is simply not true that the Church was unaware of the problem. Bishops had been receiving complaints of sexual abuse from parents for many years, and the problem had been repeatedly identified across the centuries. 14 Facing the Truth was largely exculpatory, notwithstanding the expressions of deep regret.

My experience with the Salesians, and the suppression of my report, was also a very recent one. I have told that story at length in my submission to the Victorian inquiry and it does not need to be repeated here. Suffice it to say that it involved some of the Church’s most senior leaders who reneged both on a commitment to publish my report and, as an alternative, to hold an independent inquiry as had been recommended by eminent Senior Counsel. …

All those involved in that cover-up continue to be in good standing in the Church, some still holding senior leadership positions. That is not reassuring.

I would also be more optimistic if there was more evidence of different approach to defending litigation. If a full accounting were given of the amount of money Catholic institutions have spent on legal fees in defending themselves or their priests or religious in the criminal or civil courts, compared with the amounts they have paid out in compensation to victims, it might reveal l their priorities eloquently. If a full accounting were made of the extent to which this is so as recently as the 2015-2016 financial year, it may also be revealing.

It would be easy to write the problems off as a few ‘bad apples’; however, the problems that have brought the Church to the very edge of disaster and beyond, trashing its reputation as a moral leader, were never just because of a few bad apples. The problems were institutional and cultural.

The question must, regrettably be asked, to what extent they still are.

The full submission can be found at

Patrick Parkinson is a professor of Law at the University of Sydney and a specialist in Family Law, Child Protection and the Law of  Equity and Trusts. He was President of the International Society of Family Law from 2011 to 2014.

See also a submission that John Menadue and colleagues submitted to the Royal Commission:

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