FRANK BRENNAN. Let’s be less shrill about Church-State relations

I had the good pleasure of celebrating Easter masses out in the country — Adaminaby and Nimmitabel in the Snowy country. At Adaminaby we had a full church and a very happy baptism. At Nimmitabel, the numbers were very modest but we delighted in the peace and tranquility of the Easter full moon. Upon returning to the city I was greeted by the Murdoch headline: ‘Christianity under attack: Archbishop Anthony Fisher’.

Our Dominican preacher archbishop definitely proclaimed a strong Easter warning. In part he was responding to the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and in part to some of the 16,000 submissions to the Ruddock review on religious freedom which have been published on the government website.

Being on the Ruddock panel, it would of course not be appropriate for me to comment on any particular submissions at this time. But I was shocked by the Archbishop’s shrill tone when he said, ‘we cannot take the freedom to hold and practice our beliefs for granted, even here in Australia. Powerful interests now seek to marginalise religious believers and beliefs, especially Christian ones, and exclude them from public life … We may not always be as free as we are now to evangelise and baptise as Jesus mandated at the first Easter.’

During lent we had the prime minister Malcolm Turnbull venting his frustrations with the states being slow to sign up to the proposed national redress scheme for the victims of child sexual abuse in institutions. Turnbull turned the spotlight on the churches rather than the recalcitrant states, saying: ‘If a church or a charity or an institution doesn’t sign up, I hope they will be shamed. We’ll be using the megaphones we have to encourage them to sign up, and I hope you all are too. I’m sure that if it’s a church, their parishioners and members of their congregations will be doing so.’

This shrill use of megaphones by the leaders of church and state in their respective pulpits is not helpful. In the wake of the royal commission, there is a lot of painstaking work to be done ensuring that all institutions are child safe, and ensuring justice for survivors. Though the royal commission ran for five years, it has left a lot of unanswered questions. Before the royal commission was set up, many of us were calling for state assistance to the Catholic Church because the statistics on abuse in the Church seemed to be off the scale and needing clear explanation and corrective action.

Speaking at the Law Justice Awards dinner in Parliament House Sydney back in October 2012 before Julia Gillard had decided to set up a royal commission, I had said to the assembled lawyers and politicians, ‘Whatever our religion or none, whatever our love or loathing of the Catholic Church, what is to be done in the name of law and justice? Clearly, the Church itself cannot be left alone to get its house in order. That would be a wrongful invocation of freedom of religion in a pluralist, democratic society. The state may have a role to play. As our elected politicians prudentially decide how best to proceed, they need assistance from lawyers committed to justice, not lawyers acting primarily to protect the Church or to condemn it.’

At that time, Professor Patrick Parkinson, an acknowledged national legal expert in the field, had conducted an initial study comparing reporting rates of abuse in the Catholic and Anglican Churches. I said, ‘If the Anglican and Catholic figures are statistically comparable, we all need to know the explanation for the discrepancy. If there be particular problems in the Catholic Church, they need to be identified for the good of all citizens, not just Catholics.’

Five years on, we know a lot more, but there’s still much we don’t know about the figures. 35.7 per cent of survivors who came forward and who were interviewed by the royal commission said that the abuse took place in an institution managed by a group associated with the Catholic Church. 32.5 per cent of survivors who came forward and who were interviewed by the royal commission said that the abuse took place in a government-run institution. 22.4 per cent of survivors who came forward and who were interviewed by the royal commission said that the abuse took place in an institution managed by a group associated with a religious institution other than the Catholic Church. 10.5 per cent of survivors who came forward and who were interviewed by the royal commission said that the abuse took place in a non-government, non-religious institution.

Gerard Henderson has made the point that ‘due to the systemic Catholic education system, which was not reflected in other faiths, Catholics must have accounted for around 80 per cent of children educated in a religious setting in Australia. Catholics also had a much higher percentage of orphanages and hospitals than like institutions which operated in a religious setting.’ He asked Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald if the royal commission had drilled down into these figures. Fitzgerald replied: ‘Regrettably there are no historic prevalence studies in Australia but we recommended such be undertaken in the future.’

It’s a bit like what happened with the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. An Aboriginal walking down the street was ten times more likely than any other Australian to die in custody. But once in custody, a prisoner, whether Aboriginal or not, was just as likely to die in custody. It was just that an Aboriginal was ten times more likely to be in jail in the first place. How much more likely was it in the past that a child would be abused in a Catholic institution than in a non-Catholic institution? How did this rate compare with the likelihood of a child being in a Catholic institution in the first place? It would have been helpful to have the answers to these questions.

Robert Fitzgerald spoke recently on a panel at a Catholic Social Services conference. A Catholic, and still a Catholic despite all he has heard and experienced these last five years, he said:

‘It is clear that in so many institutions that when children needed love, they were met with hostility. There was simply no love present in their lives. When they returned to the Church to seek justice, they were met with indifference, hostility and unjust practices. And instead of a Church walking humbly with its God based on the messages of the gospel they found an arrogant Church. A church that placed its own reputation above the interests of those victims and survivors. And did so knowingly and willingly in a way as to cause further harm to many of those victims.’

Much of the media attention at the royal commission case studies relating to the Catholic Church focused on the failure of church leadership back in the 1970s and 1980s and on the secrecy within the Church, precluding the reporting of abuse to state authorities.

The good news for everyone is that since then, state authorities, especially police forces and child protection agencies have changed. The media and politicians are now more alive to the issues. Even if there had been little change in the Church, it would no longer be possible for the Church authorities to act as they did a couple of generations ago. This is not a reason for nonchalance. But it should give us pause before we become too shrill about changes in church-state relations. There is now a need to look more dispassionately at what reforms are being proposed.

During the royal commission, there was a lot of simplistic media coverage which left the viewer thinking that all would have been well if only church authorities had reported matters to the police or if only priests were not bound by the seal of the confessional. But the evidence was altogether different. In fact, the commission in its case studies reported only one case of a child sex abuser using the confessional to try and escape the processes of the law. Even that case would not be covered by the seal of the confessional, given the improper purpose of ‘the penitent’. The usual case considered by the royal commission was not a penitent confessing but a victim disclosing abuse by another.

Fr Ian Waters, the distinguished canon lawyer who appeared before the royal commission to explain the operation of the seal of the confessional, has now written: ‘It is simply quite incorrect to say, “Whatever I tell a priest in a confessional will never be revealed by him to anyone”. More accurately, (the canon law) states that whatever sins of a penitent confessed by the penitent to the priest during a celebration of the sacrament of penance must never be revealed by the priest to anyone — a very different matter.’

And what’s more, it hardly if ever happens. Pedophiles don’t think they have committed any wrong. Even if they were to confess, they are more than likely to describe their offending in very generic terms. And if they really did want to confess without being reported to the authorities, they (like any other penitent) could present for confession in a confessional behind a veil where neither the victim’s identity nor theirs would ever be revealed.

On the last day of the royal commission, Justice McClellan in his brief closing remarks made four poignant observations usually overlooked by those seeking simplistic solutions or explanations for the past wrongs specially of the Catholic Church:

‘Just over 8000 people have come and spoken with a Commissioner in a private session. For many of those people, it has been the first time they have told their story. Most have never been to the police or any person in authority to report the abuse.’

‘The failure to protect children has not been limited to institutions providing services to children. Some of our most important state instrumentalities have failed. Police often refused to believe children. They refused to investigate their complaints of abuse. Many children, who had attempted to escape abuse, were returned to unsafe institutions by the police. Child protection agencies did not listen to children. They did not act on their concerns, leaving them in situations of danger.’

‘There must be changes in the culture, structure and governance practices of many institutions.’

‘The number of children who are sexually abused in familial or other circumstances far exceeds those who are abused in institutions.’

It’s time for everyone to be a little less shrill in the public square while the painstaking work is done to consider the implementation of recommendations from the royal commission which are workable and principled. It’s not being shrill to say that not all recommendations are equally workable and principled. It’s time to ensure that all institutions are safe for children. That’s the state’s business. And it’s time for all states to get on board, and for governments to share details of the proposed redress scheme, so that churches can sign up for truth, justice and healing for victims.

Frank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.

This article first appeared in Eureka Street


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Michael Flynn

I await news that Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP says that from 1 July 2018 the Sydney Archdiocese has signed up to the redress scheme and abuse victims have rights. Less talk more action. Also he could announce an Archdiocesan Pastoral Council with a lay person in the Chair to advise him on a just response. His mandatory finance council could publish financial details on claims to 30 June 2018 and assets available including whether CCI and its reinsurers will pay. I expect sadly that this news will not come out. If the available money is not enough I hope the… Read more »

P Boylan

The post should read
Renewing trust can take many forms. A good start may include Australian Archbishops/Bishops supporting the implementation of the 409 recommendations and collaboratively working with other countries and using new research and the findings of the ‘Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Abuse’ to lobby the Vatican to change canon laws and demand global reporting of clergy abuse of minors and vulnerable adults. Requesting the Holy See abide by the recommendations of the UN to protect minors.

P Boylan

The major betrayal concerning Catholics today is the sexual abuse of minors and the institutions complicity. ‘The Catholic Church’s general knowledge of sexual abuse of minors by clergy is well established and documented. Multiple regulations were written and promulgated by the Vatican in 1662, 1741, 1890, 1922, 1962 and 2002. Awareness of the problem of priests’ and bishops’ sexual activity is not a recent phenomenon. Sexual abuse of minors has deep systemic roots.’ (Sipe, 2006) All ‘involve power inequities and betrayal of the exchange by clergy misconduct’. The Pope appoints Bishops who have autonomous control in each diocese with a… Read more »

Rosemary O'Grady

I think a little more ‘shrill’ is in order, actually. When dealing with entrenched, historic autocracies (tsars; Holy Mother Church…) there never has been (take your pick: revolution, reform, change, improvement, equity) absent a great deal of sheer bloody-mindedness. Don’t be too Polite, Girls, the catch-cry of 1970s feminist rebellion was a revolution then – and could change lives for the better if adapted to Holy Mother Church today. All this cleric-led politeness and ‘belief’ – positioning of which has been in process since the Royal Commission was established by PM Gillard, whatever that is – (mainly apologetics in action)… Read more »

Trish Martin

This Easter the Archbishop lost an opportunity to declare the infinite power of God’s divine love through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. What a shame his homily focused on his sacramental Church as the persecuted one. It seems timely to ask: Where is God in all of this misguided, defensive wailing? If Canon law truly reflected the values of Jesus Christ then the Holy Spirit would have been able to work from within and mobilize the bishops into right action on behalf of the abused children. But in 2014 Pope Francis refused to change Canon law to protect children so… Read more »

Peter Johnstone

Almost as an aside in this otherwise important piece, Frank Brennan regrettably dismisses the Royal Commission’s finding that the Church’s ‘seal of confession’ should not serve to exempt confessors from reporting known paedophiles. Frank refers to “simplistic media coverage” implying “all would have been well (1) if only church authorities had reported matters to the police or (2) if only priests were not bound by the seal of the confessional.” Re (2), no-one reading the RC report could draw that conclusion; the Royal Commission’s analysis and arguments were in fact substantial and considered, and warrant careful consideration. The recommendation is… Read more »

Rosemary O'Grady

Reply to Peter Johnstone: Many years ago I reported to Frank Brennan (not in a confessional) the sexual abuse of a woman by a priest of his acquaintance. He laughed. Make sense?

Bill Burke

Peter, I would endorse much of your commitment to church reform and efforts to engage with Bishops in seeking to advance that agenda. But I would encourage a second look at the Commission’s recommendation which catches Sacramental Confession in its net. Recommendation 7.4 reads “Laws concerning mandatory reporting to child protection authorities should not exempt persons in religious ministry from being required to report knowledge or suspicions formed, in whole or in part, on the basis of information disclosed in or in connection with a religious confession.” This is a big call – reporting is required of matters of fact… Read more »

Mark Prytz

Well, its a relief to know that percentage wise in relation to the number of children available the catholic kids only got as much abuse as the anglican kids.. phewwwww, see I told you so, it all an exaggeration. And look, everything is fixed now, there’s only been one report of catholic abuse since 2000! (so what if historically reporting time is 30 years average, let’s go with the facts). (oops…. that damn catholic school assistant principal just arrested for kiddie porn). What has changed inside the church? Nothing. Around the church? Pretty layers of words,promises,”protections”, statements etc. etc. PR… Read more »

Joan Seymour

Are we not confusing the wood and the trees? I interpreted Archbishop Fisher’s protest as an observation that religious faith – and its practice – are under attack from powerful outside forces. Yet this article, and most of the comments, seem fixated on the Catholic Church, the institution. Personally I don’t care much if the institution as it stands now ultimately dies of sheer inability to take care of its own health and healthy lifestyle. I don’t care if Catholic schools lose their funding. I do care very much about our freedom to believe, and to live out of our… Read more »

Rosemary O'Grady

Atta Girl!

Bill Burke

Frank is comfortable in applying “shrill”to Archbishop Fisher’s Easter Sunday salvoes. And a significant segment of his article seeks to pour balm on the verbal jousting surrounding the Confessional Seal and its ongoing recognition or rejection in Australian jurisdictions. He rightly points to the Commission’s own material which disclosed cover-ups and complicity orchestrated with knowledge only too well known and gained from everyday discourse. Yet an open question remains: why did the Commission include revocation of the Confessional Seal’s exempt status in particular circumstances? For it is this recommendation that has done much to excite the passions of supporters and… Read more »

Kieran Tapsell

As I read Archbishop Fisher’s homily, I couldn’t help being reminded of similar calls that in this modern age, the Church was being persecuted, simply because it was being called to account. Cardinal Obando y Bravo accused the victims of child sexual abuse of being like Potiphar’s wife: “The reasons that drive Potiphar’s wife to lie are pleasure, spite and unrequited love….one can’t hide the fact that in some cases we are dealing with presumed victims who want to gain large pay offs on the basis of calumnious accusations….It seems to me that in this moment, the Church in the… Read more »

Ben Morris

Archbishop Fisher’s reaction to the Royal Commission seems to be distract the debate with a defence of the seal of the confessional. As pointed out by Frank Brennan and others, the seal of the confessional was never used in moving a paedophile priest to a new location to continue their nasty vile habit. These men were moved by a bishop who generally sought council from advisers before moving them to a new location just to keep the problem under the radar. Many in this debate seem to forget that there is a specific crime which the bishops and their advisers… Read more »

Kieran Tapsell

I don’t think it is correct to say that bishops who moved paedophile priests around exposed themselves to the crimes of accessory or complicity. Until 2012, there was only one State in Australia that made the failure to report by anyone of child sexual abuse a crime, and that was New South Wales with S.326 of the Crimes Act. In 2012, Victoria passed a similar law. All other States had abolished misprision of felony in the 1980s or 1990s or never had it because they had adopted criminal codes. In the 1990s, mandatory reporting laws were introduced for children at… Read more »

Brian Abbey

Although myself an atheist, I have a high regard for Frank Brennan’s frequent contributions to public life, while usually being unable to agree with them. By contrast, Trevor Kennedy’s rather over-heated rusty battle-cry shows him to be the kind of advocate who prompts the familiar question, ‘With friends like that, who needs enemies?’ His unconsciously shrill denial of the alleged – most would say ‘ striking and undeniable’ – shrillness of Archbishop Fisher’s call to arm, as quoted and questioned by Fr Brennan, is a convincing demonstration of the problem Kennedy can’t and likely never will see. His preference for… Read more »

Bob Elliott

Reply to Trevor Kennedy.

True the Church needs to fight again!! But the enemy is not without- it is inside the walls where the fight needs to be had. We need all our intellectual power to work out why such terrible crimes occurred and were allowed to occur. We then need all our fortitude to bring about change where it is clearly needed. So stop sliming the spotlight out there and look for the cockroaches to be eradicated in our own house. Energy wasted outside will weaken us within.

trevor kennedy

While I have great regard for Frank Brennan I think it is wrong and demeaning of him to characterise the recent statements as shrill. The Catholic Church needs to learn to fight again–like it did in the ALP when the communists tried to take it over late 40s and 50s, like it did in the 60s when justice for schools in the form of state aid was won. Recent ABC and Fairfax media treat of the Pell case has been shamefully unjust and the Fairfax recent portrayal of the church as a property magnate with total disregard of what this… Read more »

Garry Nolan

Hi Trevor, we (the Church) cannot do the terrible things we have done and not expect it to be reported in the media. The portrayal of the Church as a property magnate was a perfectly natural, and expected reaction to the closing comments in the Statement of Catholic Bishops and Religious Leaders on Release of the Final Report of the Royal Commission dated December 15, 2017. I see no evidence that “Powerful interests now seek to marginalise religious believers and beliefs”. This is simply being paranoid. Most of us were told by our mothers – “If you do the wrong… Read more »

Peter Johnstone

Archbishop Fisher claims that: “Powerful interests now seek to marginalise religious believers and beliefs, especially Christian ones, and exclude them from public life … ” Not surprisingly, the Church’s role in public life is certainly being justly questioned, and a leader of the Church chooses to play the victim. Archbishop Fisher should be lamenting the confirmed crimes of the Church as documented by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Failing to recognise, let alone address, the exposed failures and dysfunctions of the Church, is the very antithesis of true Christianity. The Church itself protected paedophiles leaving… Read more »