MICHAEL KELLY SJ. Six archbishops examined by Australian judge.

Feb 8, 2017

An extraordinary piece of evidence presented to the Commission is that up to 7% of Australian Catholic clergy have been child abusers.  

In a world first, the Australian Church is under the microscope for the next three weeks for its conduct and management of child abuse. Six of the seven archbishops in the country will all be called to give evidence and answer questions.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse, established in November 2014, will focus on a “wrap up” of the study of the Catholic Church in Australia.

The Commission has reported 1,880 cases over the last two years for investigation by the police and this represents 40% of all cases the Commission has referred to the police.

The “wrap up” will particularly focus on the structural and cultural factors involved in the Church’s life that allowed and then covered up child sexual abuse. Some 40% of all referrals for investigation and prosecution have been of people working in Catholic institutions.

An extraordinary piece of evidence presented to the Commission is that up to 7% of Australian clergy have been child abusers.

The six archbishops (of Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Adelaide, Perth, and Brisbane) are among the many officials who will be heard by the Commission in coming weeks. Amongst them are superiors of religious congregations, leaders of Catholic health, and welfare and educational services.

The focus of the Commission’s cross-examination of Catholic leaders will be twofold:

1. The Commission wants to hear what the church has learnt from the experience of the Royal Commission and what has it done on the basis of what has been learnt?  What will be done in the future?

2. The Commission will be asking the bishops and others – seminary officials, religious superiors, etc. – what cultural factors led to the abuse and its mishandling and cover-up by church leaders?

The CEO of the Catholic Church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council, Francis Sullivan, has already said “it’s the first time in the western world the Catholic Church has been so open about its data and its records“.

What we will hear will be very confronting… a miserable tale that you can’t put a coating on; it speaks of so much damage,” Sullivan said.

None of the statistics – including the 7% of Catholic clergy convicted of child sex offences – are very new. Patrick Parkinson, a professor of law who was retained by Catholic organizations to advise them on how to handle the matter, did the sums and included them in an early submission to the Commission.

Even more telling than the fact that Catholic clergy were twice as likely to be child abusers than clergy of other denominations were his observations about the contribution made by Catholic structures and statuses to the problem. There is a major structural problem, he believes.

That is where the findings of this Royal Commission will have significance well beyond the borders of a large, relatively remote island a long way from anywhere.

As Professor Parkinson noted: “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 the 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.” 2/8/2017 2/2 (The Nestor case was one where his local bishop moved to dismiss a child sex-abusing cleric during the mid- 1990s in the Diocese of Wollongong only to be blocked in his efforts by the Congregation for Clergy).

Parkinson continued in his submission to the Royal Commission: “There is no 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.”

He added: “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.”

And that is precisely where the international ramifications of the Australian enquiry will have the greatest impact if what is declared to the Commission is heard beyond Australia.

A crisis of trust has engulfed many parts of the Church in the Western world. These are parts of the world where the Catholic Church operates within legal contexts where those abused have recourse to legal structures – police and courts – which can hold the Church accountable. And what the accountability has revealed is that the leadership system simply doesn’t measure up to handling the challenges it faces.

In all parts of the world, the Church’s government operates according to the principle of “subsidiarity”, the medieval political principle that has matters handled by and decided at the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. It proposes that decisions be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority.

What the Church as a global community has to face now is that this principle has actually led to gross abuse and extensive damage to people.

Attempts by the Vatican so far to insist on consistent standards across the world have not produced a satisfactory result. Some bishops’ conferences have yet to comply with the Vatican directive to submit their protocols governing the handling of sex abuse charges. And the level and standard of scrutiny and surveillance across the world offer a very uneven picture.

The Catholic Church, as the late Cardinal Martini pointed out shortly before he died, is at least 200 out of date in some of its structural and administrative procedures. Provisions in the area of sex abuse still have a very long way to go. Perhaps the findings of the Australian Royal Commission might point in a helpful direction.

Michael Kelly is a Jesuit Priest.  This article was first published in International Le-Croix on February 7, 2016.

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