GEORGE BROWNING. Child sexual abuse, the Church and the Royal Commission.

Dec 13, 2017

The findings of the Commission have sent shock waves through the institutional Church and generated disgust in the wider community. Is there any good news, any reason to hope for something better? 

The commission’s findings, to be delivered on 15 December, lift the lid on a darkness. The revelation that so many children have been abused was deeply shocking (for me most shocking was case study 42 – the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle); but to learn that many in the Church’s leadership put the institution and its preservation before the safety and well-being of the children was almost equally as shocking.

The commission’s work covered institutional abuse no matter its source, but rightly the focus has been on the Church.

The compensation claims that follow, that must follow, may send some institutions into bankruptcy, as happened to a Diocese in the Anglican Church in Canada following investigation of the historical treatment of its first peoples.  At the very least the quantum payout will severely restrict the day to day operation of many Church jurisdictions, a restriction which may have a terminal effect on some.

There are some necessary and intended consequences as well as some unresolved issues left at the end of the Commissions work which I would like to reflect on before turning to what may be glimmers of hope:

  • Processes of compensation need to be proceeded with as quickly as possible and independently devised protocols (external to the institutional entity) must be uniformly applied and overseen.
  • Speaking for the Anglican Church, long overdue protocols for the protection of children are now in place. Clergy and lay leaders are required to undergo regular child protection training to maintain their licence and are subject to police checks. Psychological assessment at the point of recruitment is also to be assumed. These protocols cannot guarantee there will never again be an instance of abuse, but they do mean that the community at large can have confidence that everything that can reasonably be done to keep children safe, is being done.  Abuse in any form should be considered a criminal matter.
  • Unfortunately child abuse will not suddenly stop because of the work of the commission. As terrible as institutional abuse has proven to be, it remains the case that the vast majority of children suffer at the hands of a relative or friend, someone close to them, someone trusted. Many perpetrators were themselves victims in childhood. Intervention is necessary to break the cycle.  Just as the Church has been shown to protect perpetrators, so families are reluctant to expose abusers in their midst.  This mindset needs to change. Abuse or suspected abuse must be reported.  The downside of the investigation into institutional abuse has been insufficient attention given to the pandemic of abuse emanating from homes across the social and economic spectrum of Australian society.
  • While the Church as an institution is now genuinely engaged in dealing with the primary crime of child abuse, it remains deeply entrenched in the secondary crime of institutional protection at all costs. Whereas the victims of the first crime were innocent children, the victims of the secondary crime are now their own. In this fear- driven desire to protect itself, the Church has not stopped at protocols for the protection of children or the alleviation of abuse. Provisions now in place make clergy vulnerable to complaint in any area of human failing, especially of a sexual nature. Their guilt appears to be assumed, requiring them to prove their innocence. The Christian Gospel focuses on grace, repentance, forgiveness and restitution; the new provisions appear to focus on retribution and punishment. This matter is covered in a recent book published by Muriel Porter called The Scapegoats. I am personally aware of several clergy who are victims of this new climate of fear.  Several clergy and probably some lay leaders have fallen foul of a new Puritanism which is clearly not a standard expected in the public domain and should not be applied without grace in ecclesiastical circles.  No one is without mistake, clerical or lay. To deny opportunity for amendment of life, forgiveness and restitution is to deny the fundamentals of Christianity itself.   The Church still has a long way to go in waking up to the truth that protecting the institution takes many forms.
  • For some time the Church has been increasingly distant from issues of public engagement, outside the sphere of personal piety and morality. The commission and publicity rightly given to its work has accelerated this retreat. It is now extremely difficult to gain the focus of Christian leadership on matters of equity, social justice, the poor, refugees, indigenous affairs, affluenza etc.  The Church has become an irrelevance, not simply because it has been found to have failed children in its care but because it has turned inward. This movement of irrelevance within Australian society has been further accelerated by the recent marriage debate. In the minds of many in the public, the whole Church was aligned with the No-case and being aligned with this case was incapable of understanding the simple truth that committed relationships honour not simply the couple concerned, but society as a whole.

So where, if at all, is the good news?

The commission has hastened the end of the power and influence of the institutional Church. Yes there will still be bishops, dioceses and synods, but they will be of no interest to the wider life of Australian civil society. Is this good news?  Yes, because Christianity as a truth, a way of life, a conviction worth living for, and a hope worth dying for is irrepressible. Five hundred years ago European Christianity experienced a revolution brought about largely because of the abuses of the institutional Church of the day.  The revolution has shaped western civilisation ever since. The digital age, the way community is formed for millennials, the need for global answers to global issues, will reshape the human landscape and Christianity will be part of this reshaping. The need for a meta-narrative, a victim of the Enlightenment, will once more become pressingly apparent. Christianity’s commitment to love, service and common good and its emphasis that life is to be celebrated in its relationships, not in its acquisitions, make it as indispensable to the understanding of the present age as it has been, despite the frailty of its leaders, to all previous generations.

What will this look like?   I honestly do not know, any more than the jobs of the future can be known.  People will meet together. The Bible will be read, hopefully cherished anew, freed from the fundamentalism that has diminished it. Hopefully many will come to say ‘Why didn’t you tell us that God is the energy that sustains life’.  Family and community units will be the places where thanks is offered, grace shared and life celebrated.

In the 21st century praise needs to be attributed, as it has in the past, where praise is due:

To all life thou givest, to both great and small

In all life thou livest, the true life of all.

George Browning is the retired Anglican Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn.

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