PETER JOHNSTONE. Public relations responses to Royal Commission

Dec 15, 2017

The damning findings of the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in the recent reports on the Catholic dioceses of Melbourne and Ballarat seem to have elicited a standard Church response: 1. Accept critical findings; 2. Express regret to victims and families; 3. Apologise for failings of the incompetent bishop at the time; 4. Accept responsibility.

The PR spin doctors have no doubt earned their keep: the message is that the scandal of clerical child sexual abuse is a matter of the past which has now been addressed by new protocols, and Church leaders will now get on with business as usual . . . but please don’t ask why so many bishops throughout the world, with the support of the Holy See, protected paedophiles and betrayed innocent children.

The final report of the Royal Commission will demand answers.

Where this abuse occurred, resulting from the passivity or inactivity of predecessors of mine, I sincerely apologise and accept responsibility. (Denis Hart, Archbishop of Melbourne)

Where the failures of my predecessors allowed abuse to occur, I offer my heartfelt apology. (Paul Bird, Bishop of Ballarat)

I do not doubt the sincerity of bishops Hart and Bird but the suggestion that the evil of clerical child sexual abuse was allowed to spread due to a couple of ‘bad apple’ bishops is a nonsense and has been rejected for good reason by the Royal Commission.  The evidence of similar episcopal incompetence and indeed criminality throughout the world show that the Church has universal systemic problems which demand deeper questioning.

Sadly, the Church response to date indicates that the institutional Church is both burying its head in the ground and circling the wagons, and those mixed metaphors reflect the difficulty of understanding this defensive response when the Royal Commission has exposed such systemic failure.

New processes for protecting children will be of limited value without fundamental reform of the Church’s dysfunctional governance and culture. It is unlikely that the current simple response will be sufficient to deflect attention from the findings in the final report of the Royal Commission. Justice Peter McClellan, the Chair of the Commission, commented at the Commission’s final sitting that “there must be changes in the culture, structure and governance practices of many institutions.”

No other organisation today could survive if it adopted the failed governance standards of the Catholic Church. Such lack of accountability and transparency would lead to the dismissal of any corporate leader, if not gaol for associated criminality. Good leaders today of course seek openness and accountability supported by a values-based culture, engagement of their stakeholders, and gender balance in their leadership and decision making.

The Church’s apparent attempt to consign to history the horrors of child sexual abuse in the Melbourne and Ballarat dioceses is neither an adequate nor a worthy response. The Catholic Church and its Australian bishops now face a challenge to apply true Christian values of humility and discernment to their consideration of the Royal Commission’s final report, values that their predecessors failed criminally to apply in responding to the evils of clerical child sexual abuse. That final report must be met with a resolve to reform the Church’s governance to meet the highest Christian standards of accountability, transparency and inclusion in the Church’s governance.

Peter Johnstone is a committed Catholic and a member of Catholics for Renewal. He gave public evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse as a member of the governance panel in the Catholic ‘wrap-up’ hearings in February 2017.


Catholics for Renewal

Bishop of Ballarat response to the Royal Commission’s Report into Case Study 28 News/Bishops Media Statement_RC Findings Case 28_061217.pdf

Archbishop of Melbourne response to the Royal Commission’s Report into Case Study 35

Royal Commission Final Sitting Opening Address – The Hon. Justice Peter McClellan AM


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