Kieran Tapsell: The Royal Commission on the Melbourne Response

Next Monday, 18 August, 2014, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse will commence Case Study No. 16 on the Melbourne Response that operated within the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne.

In 1994, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson had been appointed by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference to draw up a protocol for dealing with sex abuse of children by priests. The outcome was Towards Healing that was approved in November 1996 by all the Australian bishops except Archbishop Pell. Just one month before, in October 1996, Archbishop Pell set up his Melbourne Response.

In an extended interview on the Four Corners website, Francis Sullivan, the CEO of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council that represents the Church at the Royal Commission, was asked why Archbishop Pell did not sign Towards Healing. Sullivan said that Pell’s explanation was “that when he became Archbishop of Melbourne, he felt an urgency to move very quickly in his first hundred days, and he also had a fairly strong direction, he said, from the then Premier, that if the Church did not get its act together, then others would, so it seems to me that that sense of urgency compelled him to move quickly, even though there was a national process evolving, but not yet settled.”

George Pell was consecrated Archbishop of Melbourne on 16 July 1996. His very presidential “first hundred days” expired at the end of October, and Towards Healing was approved by the other Australian bishops the next month. The Royal Commission will no doubt have documents showing how much Towards Healing had “evolved” between October and November 1996, and the extent to which the Premier of Victoria, Geoff Kennett, was not prepared to give Pell another thirty days.

A more plausible explanation for Pell going it alone can be found in comparing the two protocols. Towards Healing had a requirement that the Church would comply with all laws regarding reporting sex abuse of children to the police. Pell’s Melbourne Response had no such requirement, but said that the victim would be encouraged to report.

On 31 January 1997, the Irish bishops received a letter from the Vatican stating that it had “serious canonical and moral reservations” about the Irish proposals for mandatory reporting to the police. The Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Castrillon told the Irish bishops two more times, later in 1997 and in 1998, that bishops should be “fathers to your priests, not policemen”, and that it was up to the victim to report – even if they were still children. Similar statements were made in 2002 by Archbishop Bertone of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Re of the Congregation for Bishops, Archbishop Herranz, the Vatican’s senior canon lawyer and President of the Pontifical Council for Interpretation of Legislative Texts, Professor Ghirlanda, Dean of Canon Law at the Gregorian University, and Cardinals Maradiaga, Billé, Schotte  and Lehmann. Cardinals Castrillon and Maradiaga both stated publicly that they would prefer to go to jail than to report a paedophile priest to the police.

George Pell was a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1990 to 2000, and he met with that Congregation in Rome every twelve to eighteen months. Pell told the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry that the people in Rome from 1996 onwards were aware of the Melbourne Response and were “pleased with it.” Of course they were: the Melbourne Response had no provision for bishops to report these crimes to the police, and was in accord with the views of the Vatican. Towards Healing conflicted with canon law, and was not in accordance with those views, and in particular with those of Cardinals Castrillon and Maradiaga who advised bishops to break any reporting laws. Fortunately for the Victorian bishops, the mandatory reporting laws there did not apply to clergy.

It is not surprising that none of the 304 complaints of sexual abuse dealt with by the Melbourne Response were ever reported directly by the Church to the police. We are likely to hear evidence of how many victims actually went to the police after discussing the matter with the Church’s Independent Commissioner.  The Church had an extraordinary conflict of interest in advising anyone about going to the police.

The second difference between the two protocols was that Pell imposed a cap of $50,000 on compensation, whereas Towards Healing had no such cap. In his 2002 interview with Richard Carleton, Pell said that if the victims were not happy with the limited compensation and the oath of secrecy required under the Melbourne Response, they could always “go to the courts.” Then, in the Ellis case, Pell spent $750,000 in legal costs to demonstrate what would happen to them if they did. The average payment under the Melbourne Response was $32,500. In Toowoomba, where Bishop Bill Morris refused to apply the Ellis defence, the average payment was $382,433. Pell told the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry: “I have always been on the side of victims.”

Pell will give evidence by video link from Rome.  David Curtain QC, the Chair of the Melbourne Response Compensation Panel, is also on the witness list. The Four Corners program played a secret tape of a conversation he had with a victim in which he said he failed to see the point about her getting independent legal advice for a release that she was being asked to sign. Curtain denied to Four Corners that he had ever given such advice.

The live broadcast from the Royal Commission looks like being the week’s best show in town.

Kieran Tapsell is a retired lawyer with degrees in theology and law. He is the author of Potiphar’s Wife: The Vatican’s Secret and Child Sexual Abuse (2014), ATF Press.

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Kieran Tapsell is a retired civil lawyer, author and translator.

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