Peter Johnstone. Bishop Robinson at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

Sep 5, 2015

“the major obstacle to a better response from the Church has been the Vatican.”  

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson

On Monday 24 August 2015, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson spent a day in the witness box at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. He showed the integrity one would hopefully expect from a Christian bishop in focussing on the interests of children ahead of the institutional interests of the Church. He was there to assist the Commission in its understanding of the Catholic Church’s approach to the scandal of clerical child sexual abuse. Bishop Robinson was transparent in his formal statement, in his responses to questions, and in the multitude of accompanying exhibits. His evidence provides new and worrying insights into the decision-making processes of the Australian hierarchy and the Roman curia. It is clear from Robinson’s frank evidence that much of the institutional Church’s actions have been focussed largely on the reputation of the Church at the expense of the protection of children from sexual abuse.

Two of the exhibits are written advice to the bishops from Dr Nicholas Tonti-Filippini, Australia’s first hospital ethicist, recently deceased, and commonly viewed in the Church as highly intelligent, of great integrity, and fully committed to Church doctrine. Tonti-Filippini’s advice, as early as 1 August 1990, made a damning assessment of the Australian bishops’ 1988 attempt at a ‘Protocol for dealing with allegations of criminal behaviour’. He criticised that protocol as concerned with ‘responsibilities’ such as the “defence of good reputation and image of individuals . . . and appearing to be impartial” (T-P’s italics), but “the need to protect victims of crime and to prevent further injury or injustice to them are not mentioned” (his italics). Similarly, he noted “the value of seeking to ensure that a criminal is brought to justice is not mentioned.”

In a further exhibit, a letter from Tonti-Filippini of 22 August 1996 some six years later, he objects that a Church spokesperson has been publicly “referring favourably” to the 1988 Protocol ignoring his earlier warnings, and that current responses were putting “the short term interests of the Church ahead of the care of the alleged victim.” He reiterated his advice as to “how damaging it would be when, as would be inevitable, this apparent legerdemain (trickery) were exposed.” This failure to act appropriately and quickly is repeatedly illustrated in Bishop Robinson’s evidence, as the institution is forced to respond to responsible exposure in the media. An example is the Holy See’s continuing opposition to criminal reporting of paedophiles, except where failure to report could risk prosecution of a bishop!

Bishop Robinson claimed in his formal written statement to the Royal Commission that, however much the Australian bishops failed over the last thirty years, “the major obstacle to a better response from the Church has been the Vatican.” Bishop Robinson stated clearly his dissatisfaction with the role of the Holy See in dealing with clerical child sexual abuse, both the poor governance including the demands of secrecy, and their appalling ignorance of the nature of the crime, even to the extent that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith suggested that paedophilia be eliminated from the list of the more serious crimes.

It seems clear that the Royal Commission is recognising that they cannot adequately deal with the Catholic Church’s failings in Australia alone in its complicity in the protection of paedophiles, without addressing the issue of the universal Church’s dysfunctional governance from Rome. Bishop Robinson has demonstrated the lack of public accountability and due process at every level of Church decision-making. This even involves unjustifiable conflicts between canon law and the civil law of legitimate democratic governments and, notably, a failure to listen to the people of the Church.

Bishop Robinson is particularly direct in his criticism of Pope St John Paul II’s response to clerical child sexual abuse and his failure to provide real leadership, noting “we still haven’t had that kind of leadership not even from Francis.” He illustrated the kind of leadership needed in a powerful ex tempore statement in his oral evidence:

Imagine that way back in, say, something like 1987 – to pick a date out of the air – imagine that (John Paul II) had come to the microphone in St Peter’s Square one Sunday morning, with a vast crowd in front of him, and said something like this . . . “I received a report during the week that shocked me the core. It tells of widespread sexual abuse of minors by priests and religious. . . . I call on every bishop in the world to act with me. We’re going to deal with these people. There’s no place for them in the church. We’re going to reach out to victims. We’re going to look at anything in the church which may have contributed and we’re going to get rid of it and I call on every bishop to work with me in this.”

Bishop Robinson’s clear inference was that Pope Benedict XVI could have taken similar action with an apology for not acting sooner. It is not too late for Pope Francis to provide decisive leadership: “to look at anything in the church which may have contributed”. This must include a commitment to radical reform of the Church’s dysfunctional governance – structure, clericalist culture and canon law – that has resulted in the criminal abuse of children throughout the world caused by the institutional Church itself.

Bishop Robinson is a witness of note, being a retired bishop who played a leading role in the development of the Church’s early response in Australia to clerical child sexual abuse. He has proven his own commitment to the protection of children and the exposure of the Church’s dysfunctional governance by public statements and writings. His two books on these issues are Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church and For Christ’s Sake End Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church for Good. Bishop Robinson taught canon law at the Catholic Institute of Sydney and is a past president of the Canon Law Society of Australia and New Zealand.

A question: Would any serving Australian bishops be prepared to further assist the Royal Commission understand the real nature of the Church’s governance rejecting, as Bishop Robinson has, the undoubted institutional pressures that arise from that dysfunctional governance and that resulted in the scandal of cover-up and protection of paedophiles.


Peter Johnstone is President, Catholics for Renewal,

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