FRANCIS SULLIVAN. CEO Truth Justice and Healing Council.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse’s comprehensive and confronting final report rightly focuses on the Catholic Church, with one of the 17 volumes dedicated solely to that institution. The litmus test for the Church leadership in the coming months and years will be the degree to which they act on the Royal Commission’s recommendations.

More than 36 percent of all abuse victims involved in the Royal Commission claimed they were abused in the Catholic Church.

The Royal Commission’s data survey revealed that 4,445 individuals alleged abuse within the Church in the period 1950 to 2010 and 1,880 priests, religious and others associated with the Church were accused of abuse over that time.

Throughout this period Church leaders and their officials gravely mismanaged cases of abuse. They did not often believe victims or their families. They rarely informed the police. They concealed information and protected perpetrators.

The Church, as an institution, acted like any other institution. It risk-managed and protected itself. It deployed rigorous, legal defences and hardball negotiations. It used its might to prevail over victims, even when they knew the abuse had occurred.

This has become a familiar and tragic refrain.

We have learnt much over the past five years, but questions remain.

Most of the case studies involving the Church were about the abuse that happened in the 1970s and 80s – a time when the power imbalance between clerics and the lay community was reflected in unquestioned compliance because ‘father knows best’.

It was a time when secrecy and tribalism warded off critics in a self-serving belief that the Church’s future demanded it.

Had the Royal Commission been called 20 years earlier, perpetrators would have been called to account and exposed, and many, many more victims would have been able to give evidence.

But many have died or are incapacitated and the story of so many risked slipping into history.

That said, we do have a clear view of the culture in which these Church administrators operated. In an environment of clericalism, structural and governance failures, flawed leadership, poor formation and a skewed view of canon law, many abused their power to abuse vulnerable children or to cover up the crimes.

The leadership of an organisation, including the Catholic Church, shapes the assumptions, values, beliefs and norms of its culture. This, in turn, influences how individuals behave, particularly with vulnerable people.

The Commission’s findings paint a picture of an arrogant and hypocritical church, which put the reputation of a priest or brother ahead of the well-being of children who had been abused and those who were at risk of abuse.

Many of the Royal Commission’s recommendations relate to the future policies and administration of all institutions and it called on Church leaders to instigate a major review of diocesan structures and governance.

Governance must reflect the identity, ethos and purpose of what it is to be Church, or things can, and did go very badly wrong.

The Church must not fall into the trap of maintaining a rigid, defensive focus where its mission, as articulated by the Gospel, is undermined by expediency and self-preservation.

Having said that, the Commission commended and affirmed the corporate governance practices across Catholic social services, health and education services, which largely operate under lay leadership and are heavily regulated by external bodies.

These structures are legitimate Church companies that have the same status in the Church as any diocese or religious order.

Clearly, there is much the rest of the institution can learn from how lay-led canonical structures are responding to the pastoral and ministerial needs of local communities.

For 2,000 years important decisions about how the Church operates and its engagement with the laity have been made by a handful of men on behalf of the entire Church.

Clearly, that model doesn’t wash in the 21st century.

The majority of the Royal Commission’s recommendations regarding the Church, called on the Australian bishops to address universal Church issues with the Vatican, including celibacy and the seal of confession.

The litmus test for the Church leadership in the coming months and years will be the degree to which they act on the Royal Commission’s recommendations.

Francis Sullivan has been CEO of the Catholic Church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council since just after the Royal Commission was announced over five years ago. He recently delivered his final public address in Canberra hosted by Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn. You can read the speech here.


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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6 Responses to FRANCIS SULLIVAN. CEO Truth Justice and Healing Council.

  1. Avatar Bill Burke says:

    Francis Sullivan proposes a straightforward course of action: The Bishops should get busy doing just what the the Royal Commission recommended and no half measures are to be countenanced. But is this the only option that should be on the table?
    Maintaining a profound respect for the Royal Commission’s achievements is not incompatible with scrutinising its recommendations before moving to a process of endorsement and application or, in some cases, modification or rejection.
    And who should be a part of this evaluative process?
    The Royal Commissioners have had their say. Interested Parties had the opportunity to submit opinions, and in in some cases, be heard in Commission sessions and influence the content of recommendations.
    Perhaps it is time to allow the Catholic Community to review and respond to the recommendations?
    After all, it is the sum total of parish communities, who after the victims and their families, bore the brunt of fractured pastoral relationships – when perpetrators were revealed and the cover up culture was exposed. Collectively, these individuals have kept the parish plant alive and available. Their experience and wisdom in these matters deserves to be heard and heeded.
    And not insignificantly – without their presence and pastoral engagement parishes cease to exist and, ultimately, bishops become superfluous to requirement.

  2. Avatar Kieran Tapsell says:

    When Francis speaks about Church administrators operating in “an environment of …. a skewed view of canon law”, I hope that what he really meant was that they had a “skewed view that secrecy provisions of canon law and its dysfunctional disciplinary system” were the correct approach, rather than that they had somehow misinterpreted it. As the Royal Commission made clear in great detail, bishops who covered up were acting in accordance with canon law as it was interpreted by the supreme authorities in the canonical legal system, the Roman Curia. Likewise, the Commissions findings and recommendations about the canonical disciplinary system demonstrated its dysfunction. There is only one person who can change this: Pope Francis, and he has so far shown no inclination to do so. One can only hope that he takes the recommendations of the Royal Commission on canon law on these and other matters seriously and acts accordingly.

  3. Avatar Trish Martin says:

    It seems from the above comments that Anthony Fisher lacks the integrity to be worthy of his status as Archbishop of Sydney. Outspoken against same sex marriage but silent on mandatory reporting of offending clerics. If the bishops truly represented the teachings of Jesus they would place children at the pinnacle line of importance and take action to preserve the dignity that is God given at conception.
    If Canon law does not represent the values taught by Christ, how can the Church claim to be the visible sign of Christ on earth? It’s sacramental value to society is compromised by its arrogance and betrayal of what Christ values most.

  4. Avatar Joan Seymour says:

    “….the Commission commended and affirmed the corporate governance practices across Catholic social services, health and education services”. Yes. I worked for years in Catholic social services and education, and took for granted the excellent governance practices in that sector. Then I changed careers and found myself working for the ‘other’ part of the Church, where the diocese or Archdiocese is the ultimate employer. I couldn’t believe what happens there. My Archdiocese has excellent policies and procedures for its lay workers, but in practice lay employees can treated in a way which would never be tolerated in the corporate world or in Catholic social services, health and education. The complaints procedures exist – but the final appeal is to the (lay) manager of the Archdiocese. He or she can’t help if you are complaining about an employer who is a cleric. A priest can get away with almost anything, including firing an employee without notice and without a reason, bullying, and contemptuous and irrational behaviour. If your priest is a decent and well-intentioned person, and most of them are, you’re fine. If he isn’t, you have to cop it sweet because there’s no-one to help.

  5. Avatar Jim KABLE says:

    The arrogance of the Church appears to be once more on the rise. We need a number of its taller poppies to be appropriately lopped and with prison terms. In fact a full list of all priests/bishops and sisters who have served time/are serving time for their abuse of boys and girls should be made public – from the pulpit – a Day of Shame needs to be held – and in the major press/media outlets around Australia – for us all to see and know! The Message Needs Properly to Be Sent!

  6. Avatar P. Boylan says:

    When Anthony Fisher became Archbishop of Sydney, he committed to playing a lead role in the Catholic Church in responding to child sexual abuse cases.

    Archbishop Fisher stated to Catholics that, “Victims of abuse and all young people must come first – no excuses, no cover-ups.
    The Church must do better in this area and I am committed to playing a leading role in regaining the confidence of the community and of our own members.”

    When being interviewed by the Royal Commission in 2017,
    Archbishop Anthony Fisher urged there must be national mandatory reporting for clergy.

    What action has Archbishop Fisher taken in the past year?

    Archbishop Fisher has campaigned openly against same-sex marriage but not national mandatory reporting for clergy.

    Catholics and parents with children in Catholic Schools must ask why not?

    Under canon law, all Bishop’s are required to conceal clergy abuse unless there is a civil law requiring reporting in their state or country.
    There is no civil law requiring mandatory reporting of clergy abuse in Queensland, Tasmania, Western Australia and ACT.

    However, Bishops remain are sole managers of schools and social service agencies providing services to youth in Qld, Tas, WA, and ACT.

    Why has Archbishop Fisher taken no action?

    In 2018, many Australian see his words full of empty promises.

    The abuse of children, abuse of church power and factors leading to the abysmal institutional response to incidents of abuse – clericalism, structure and governance issues, leadership failures, canon law, and celibacy, remain in place today.

    As Francis Sullivan stated, ‘The stark findings of the Commission paint the ‘picture of an arrogant and hypocritical Church’.

    Too often the safety and welfare of children were not and are not the number one priority.

    It is hard not to conclude that the dignity and worth of an abused child or even that of children at risk is far less important than the reputation of a priest or brother.

    The Catholic Church is increasingly recruiting priests from overseas seminarians; a strategy with inherent problems and devoid of long-term plans.

    Church officials are reluctant to give out accurate figures but In regional Australia, almost 50% or more of priest come from overseas.

    Parents with children in Catholic schools must insist on a public database such as that used by most professions (lawyers, teachers, doctors etc.) be in place and accessible for parents and parishioner to make background checks.

    Evidence to the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse indicate there are numerous cases of overseas clergy abusing children across Australia.

    The Federal Government requires that sponsors of overseas trained religious workers (on visas 401 and 428) report the criminal misconduct of clergy within five years of the incident.

    Has this happened in the abuse cases reported to the Royal Commission?

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