PETER JOHNSTONE. The Royal Commission and the Catholic Church’s Dysfunctional Governance

Nov 21, 2016


In May 2016, the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse released Issues Paper 11 – Catholic Church Final Hearing, inviting submissions for its final Catholic Church hearing scheduled for three weeks 6-24 February 2017. That hearing will review the horror of clerical child sexual abuse and the Church’s cover-up and protection of abusing clergy, including “factors that may have affected the institutional response of the Catholic Church to child sexual abuse.” The hearing will doubtless attempt to answer the question asked by many Catholics: How could the leadership of our Church behave in this way whilst continuing to espouse and teach Christian values?

The Issues Paper leaves little doubt that the Royal Commission recognises that the Catholic Church’s governance is dysfunctional, that the real scandal of clerical child sexual abuse goes beyond the criminal abuse of children to the immoral and shameful cover-up and protection of abusing clergy by the institutional Church, sacrificing children to protect the Church. The scandal has exposed the Church’s dysfunctional governance.

The Royal Commission received 45 public submissions in response to its Issues Paper. The submission from Catholics for Renewal analysed the Church’s dysfunctional governance and the need for reform. Issues Paper 11 presents a number of very focussed questions on possible causes of the Church’s shameful response such as doctrines, structure, governance, leadership, culture, accountability, secrecy, the formation of clergy, and canon law.

Our Church has manifestly failed to protect children in its care from criminal clerical abuse. There is a need for substantial reforms to the Church’s governance, particularly its lack of accountability, transparency and inclusiveness, reflected in the pervasive and toxic culture of clericalism. As Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv, now Bishop of Parramatta, has observed:

With the ongoing Royal Commission into sexual abuse, the spotlight has been shining on the church’s dismal failure . . . (and) has revealed just how far we have drifted from the vision of Jesus . . . Instead of demonstrating that fundamental ethos of care for the victims, the church has been shown to have cared primarily for its own security and interests. (Melbourne, 1 February 2016)

The Christian faith is a faith of love, and the welfare, health and education agencies of the Catholic Church do remarkable work in the world. The Church should be a leader in the world applying Christian values to issues of justice, development, peace and the environment. However, the Church’s dysfunctional governance has led to failures which refute its Christian mission and the good works of its agencies, and which could forfeit its respect and influence in the world.

The Royal Commission’s work provides the Church with an opportunity to address its failings with humility, courage and wisdom – in the words of Cardinal Martini, “to take a journey of transformation” (8 August 2012). The Church is accountable to God and to the faithful, and accountable also to the State on matters pertaining to the State; but it constantly fails in these accountabilities. The Church’s institutional leadership must publicly acknowledge that its dysfunctional governance was at the heart of its immoral response to the abuse of children in its care. It must confront its clerical and feudal culture, name the dysfunctional practices, and root them out.

Catholics for Renewal has outlined in its submission to the Royal Commission the serious deficiencies in past and present governance of the Catholic Church, defects which have warped its handling and reporting of child abuse. Only some of those deficiencies can be addressed by process and appropriate civil legislation such as mandatory criminal reporting of child sexual abuse. Mandatory criminal reporting of child sexual abuse should be legislated in all states and territories, in addition to existing welfare mandatory reporting which is focussed on the child rather than prosecution of the perpetrator. The State has an obligation to ensure that no institution can protect criminals, and that includes churches.

The Church must also recognise and correct the dysfunctional nature of its governance and culture. The reform of governance requires significant change which can be pushed from below but must be driven from the top; patriarchy and gender discrimination must be removed, and transparency and accountability introduced, institutionalising consultation and participation in decision making processes. Accountability, inclusion of the faithful, subsidiarity, and synodality at all levels should become normal practice and that requires, inter alia, an approach to the selection of bishops that is informed by consultation with the faithful to determine real leadership needs.

It is not surprising that an organisation headed exclusively by males, all celibate and mostly elderly, suffers from poor decision making and dysfunctional governance. The Church’s governance cannot be improved without ensuring gender balance at the top levels of decision making, by removing the present discrimination against women that excludes them from those positions. This is a matter of both justice and good governance.

The Royal Commission cannot have confidence in the institutional Catholic Church’s responses to the Royal Commission’s findings until the Church acknowledges both its institutional abuse of children throughout the world and the dysfunctional governance at the heart of that abuse, and then reforms that dysfunctional governance. The bishops of Australia, through their Truth Justice and Healing Council, have committed to major changes in processes for dealing with allegations of clerical child sexual abuse, but have not addressed the real issue of the Church’s dysfunctional global governance, a matter beyond their official competence but not beyond their influence.

Catholics for Renewal believes that the Royal Commission understands the answer to the question asked by Catholics: How could the leadership of our Church behave in this way whilst continuing to espouse and teach Christian values? We hope that the Royal Commission will demand the Holy See’s attention to the Catholic Church’s global dysfunctional governance, the critical factor that “affected the institutional response of the Catholic Church to child sexual abuse.”

Peter Johnstone – President, Catholics for Renewal Inc


Catholics for Renewal Inc

Issues Paper 11 – Catholic Church Final Hearing:

45 public submissions

A submission from Catholics for Renewal Inc

CV: Peter Johnstone OAM

Peter Johnstone has been President of Catholics for Renewal since its establishment in 2011. He is semi-retired following a career in public service at all levels of Australian government in senior executive/CEO positions, including Director-General of the Victorian Department of Community Services from 1984 to 1989. He is principal of PJ Governance and is Chair of the Jesuit College of Spirituality within the University of Divinity.

Peter was Chairman of VincentCare from 2009 to 2013 and of Jesuit Social Services for 13 years to 2008. He was a member of the Catholic Commission for Justice, Development and Peace, Melbourne 1996-2008, a former Deputy Chair of National Seniors Australia, and a former Chair of Catholic Social Services Vic. He has served on multiple other public and community boards of governance.

Peter is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and of the Australian Institute of Public Administration (Vic). He was awarded Life Membership of the Victorian Local Governance Association in 2007. He has a BA (Admin) from Canberra University and a Diploma in Company Directorship; this year, he will complete his Masters in Theology. He is married to Laurien with whom he has four daughters and six grandchildren.


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