Best of 2017: Commission's Catholic wrap-up



Last Monday, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse commenced its three-week examination of the causes of child sexual abuse and cover up in the Catholic Church in Australia over the last 60 years. The statistics were horrifying.

Cardinal Pell with paper titled Sexual AbuseEvery case represented a person who claims as a child to have been abused by a person of authority in a Catholic institution — whether it be a school, a parish, an orphanage or a children's home.

Whichever way the statistics are interpreted in comparison with other institutions, they are appalling. The Catholic Church harboured child abusers in the past, and in numbers which now shock Australians, whether they be Catholic or not.

We need to hold the victims clearly in focus, not as statistics or as hard cases, but as individuals, erstwhile vulnerable members of the church community, citizens able to walk tall again because they have been heard, believed and affirmed. Francis Sullivan got it right when speaking for the Church's Truth Justice and Healing Council. With great compassion and insight, he told the commissioners:

'We are advised that the data does not distinguish those claims that were substantiated from those that were accepted without investigation. In an ideal world, the data would distinguish between the number of allegations where offenders made admissions, or were convicted, and those where an investigation substantiated the complaint.

'Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that the proportion of priests since 1950 against whom even claims of abuse have been made undermines the image and credibility of the priesthood. Likewise, the very high proportions of religious brothers with claims of abuse only further corrodes the community's trust.

'The data tells us that over the six decades from 1950 to 2010 some 1265 Catholic priests and religious were the subject of a child sexual abuse claim. These numbers are shocking; they are tragic and they are indefensible.'

The next day, on the first regular sitting day of Parliament for this year, Bill Shorten took the opportunity just before question time to declare, 'It is past time for Cardinal Pell to return to Australia and to account to the commission in person.'


"Twenty years ago, I daresay there would have been a chorus of objections to the Greens' motion, led in the first instance by the various bodies representing the nation's lawyers. But this time, there was silence."


The Greens took the cue and introduced a motion into the Senate the day after, acknowledging that 4444 people made abuse allegations against the church in the last 35 years. Having noted that 'allegations of criminal misconduct against Cardinal George Pell have been forwarded to the Victorian Office of Public Prosecutions by the Victorian Police', they called 'on Cardinal George Pell to return to Australia to assist the Victorian Police and Office of Public Prosecutions with their investigations into these matters'.

Pell came out fighting, as he has so often in the past whenever the Greens are agitating an issue from a perspective he finds most disagreeable. His office in Rome issued this statement: 'The Greens have opted for an obvious political stunt while knowing full well Cardinal Pell has consistently cooperated with the Royal Commission and the Victorian Police.

'The suggestion that Cardinal Pell should be accountable for all the wrongdoings of Church personnel throughout Australia over many decades is not only unjust and completely fanciful but also acts to shield those in the Church who should be called to account for their failures ... The Greens' anti-religion agenda is notorious and most fair minded Australians would see this motion as pathetic point-scoring.'

Whatever the Cardinal's concerns about the Greens' political agenda, it was the Labor leader Bill Shorten who opened the door on this approach the previous day. And once the Greens introduced the motion, not one senator raised an objection or qualification.

Twenty years ago, I daresay there would have been a chorus of objections to the Greens' motion, led in the first instance by the various bodies representing the nation's lawyers. But this time, there was silence except from the Australian Council of Civil Liberties. Their long-time president Terry O'Gorman issued a statement rightly claiming 'that the Australian Senate motion was yet another example of politicians politicising the criminal investigation and related court processes'.

O'Gorman warned, 'Great care has to be taken, particularly by politicians using the "coward's castle" of Parliament, to prevent the current Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse from becoming a witch hunt'. No other Australian has been as closely scrutinised and publicly examined by the commission as Pell. O'Gorman said it was 'imperative that politicians and other community leaders not whip up hysteria in relation to matters arising from the Royal Commission as that will negatively affect balanced and serious consideration by the community of the Royal Commission in respect of its final recommendations'.


"Even Rome needs to accept that a more transparent, accountable and inclusive hierarchy would have spared many children the horrors of abuse. The temptation to find excuses is always there."


I then appeared before the Royal Commission to discuss the most arcane of issues. They summoned me to meet with them as part of a panel to discuss the seal of the confessional as they try to determine 'to what extent has the operation of the Sacrament of Reconciliation contributed to the occurrence of child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions or affected the institutional response to this abuse'. Though not an academic theologian nor an experienced parish priest, I happily accepted the commission's invitation. I told the commission:

'We've all been confronted with these horrific statistics ... You as a Royal Commission put the spotlight on the Church, quite rightly. You ask, well, why are things out of kilter in the Catholic Church? You look at those things which are distinctively Catholic, particularly those which might look a bit weird to those who aren't Catholic, so you draw up a list of those things, including confession. Now, it seems to me that where we're all on the same page ... we want to get this right in terms of the future protection of children.'

The Catholic Church has had a problem with child sexual abuse and it needed state assistance and community pressure to acknowledge publicly the extent of the problem and all its ramifications. Hopefully the Royal Commission can formulate universal principles and standards which can be applied to all institutions ensuring better protection of children. The state has a legitimate interest ensuring that Church structures and procedures comply with the principles and standards set down in laws enacted by parliaments.

But it will be a matter for the Catholic Church to determine how best to comply with those principles and standards, consistent with Church teachings and structures. At the commission, I offered this suggestion to Justice McClellan and his fellow commissioners:

'You should separate out what you might recommend in terms of legislative change, but then, regardless of what you might recommend about legislative change, recommendations directly to the Catholic Church as to how to proceed to correct certain evils and abuses that you have become aware of in the historic practice of confession.'


"The Royal Commission has less than a year to run. Once it reports, the Australian Church will need to change radically, or become a despised, diminishing sect."


I then made this observation:

'Though most of you are not members of the Catholic Church, nor pride yourselves as theologians, you have been the de facto confessors of the nation on this particular issue now for four years. You have far more experience pastorally on these things than even all these learned professors and bishops I am surrounded by will ever have.'

Even Rome needs to accept that a more transparent, accountable and inclusive hierarchy would have spared many children the horrors of abuse. The temptation to find excuses is always there. Past victims and children in Catholic institutions now and in the future will be best helped if the commission can set down appropriate standards and protocols and if the Church, convinced that it is not being singled out for adverse treatment by the commission or politicians, can review its own structures, theology and doctrine to ensure compliance with those standards and protocols. This will be best achieved if the Parliament backs off and awaits the formal findings of the Royal Commission and if the Victoria Police and the DPP apply the usual standards to any allegations now surfacing about Pell.

The agenda for the promised 2020 synod of the Australian Church cannot be determined and managed only by those who cling to what they regard as the non-negotiable aspects of Church hierarchy and governance, when those aspects are shown to have contributed to past failures in transparency and accountability. Those failures then compounded rates of child abuse which were shocking, tragic and indefensible. The Royal Commission has less than a year to run. Once it reports, the Australian Church will need to change radically, or become a despised, diminishing sect.



Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.

This article was originally published on 12 February 2017.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Royal Commission, clergy sexual abuse, George Pell


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Existing comments

Indeed but do not let us forget the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle and the appalling abuse perpetrated and covered up there.
Mary Samara-Wickrama | 08 January 2018

'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me'. Or if preferred, "Romeo, Romeo, my love. Wherefore art thou Romeo?
once were Catholics | 08 January 2018

When I was a 12 and 13 year old boy some 60+ years ago I was groomed, seduced, molested and rejected by a Marist priest who was Chaplin at a well known Sydney Catholic Hospital. I was ashamed and unable to discuss this fact for 50 years and it weighed heavenly on my shoulders during that time and effected my entire life. Sexual abuse by clergy does not just happen and then disappear it continues to haunt you until you realise that you are not alone and then and only then can discuss it. This childhood abuse ruined my ability to live a normal life and fulfil my ambitions.
DAVID FIELD | 08 January 2018

Tragic David. I hope you believe that despite your awful experience God and no doubt many others still love you.
once were Catholics | 08 January 2018

Hi Frank. Thank you for your views. I hope that in the ensuing debate it is never be forgotten that child abuse inside the Church is likely to have a very long history going back hundreds and hundreds of years. I hope solid scholarship well explore these matters in the coming years. Many today likely feel at large the Church's response is defensive when religious rights are questioned and lacks a heartfelt metanoia. In a world in need of inspiration and guidance I find this profoundly sad. Trust, credibility and respect have been dashed possibly beyond repair.
Ivan Tchernegovski | 08 January 2018

Thank you Fr Frank for this thoughtful article. I wonder if the Church can be "convinced that it is not being singled out for adverse treatment by the commission or politicians, or can review its own structures, theology and doctrine to ensure compliance with those standards and protocols" ... it doesn't seem to understand the nature of self-righteousness or any path to humility. I have a small book beside me here titled: "Forgiving God" (by Judith Crane, Grove Books Ltd: Cambridge (2004). It was offered to me by a Uniting Church Minister (I've never heard of this possibility within the Catholic tradition). The book seeks to address wounds so deep that forgiving God seems the only way to move into an honest relationship with God. I won't hold my breath for humility in institutional Church, but deep wounds may just find some peace in forgiving God. May grace find a way into this brokenness ... somehow.
Mary Tehan | 09 January 2018

there are three urgent changes that i fear will not be made. 1} the structure should be changed by making many more vocational dioceses and fewer geographical dioceses. apart from the military, dioceses for women, public service, finance industry, etc would help. 2} the administration of the parish should be solely a lay function allowing the priest to administer the sacraments and attend to the poor of the parish. 3" the religious education of the children should be divorced from the secular education of the children two generations of children have grown up equating knowledge of their faith is on a par with their knowledge of maths, gramm,er chemistry etc. no wonder they don't go to mass any,more..
jim macken | 09 January 2018

30 years ago Edward Schillbeeckx demystified celibacy as an essential component for priesthood and ministry. Compulsory celibacy conflicts with the UN declaration of human rights. The Right to marry. It seems that this issue needs to be resolved. The Vatican Council skirted the issue but due to conservative influences did not discuss it. It seems sensible that if a person is not happy in the celibate life he should be able to take up his/her option to marry or leave the celibate state. Currently such an option is not available.
Bill McMahon | 09 January 2018

Well, the Commission's report its now out and what signs are there of the radical change that Frank says is needed? The THJC has said that the Church leadership needs to take the Commission's recommendations and findings seriously and act swiftly in implementing them. The ACBC has said that it will be 'taking very seriously the Royal Commission's report' but, never the body to rush into reform of any kind, it has 'commissioned an initial assessment of [the commission's] findings by the TJHC. That hasn't stopped several prominent bishops from rejecting out of hand the Commission's recommendation to remove the privilege that is currently extended to information obtained in the confessional box. Interesting, isn't it, how some of the recommendations require an 'initial assessment' by the THJC whereas others can be immediately rejected. Perhaps it's a case of 'don't confuse us with argument, we've made up our minds'.
Ginger Meggs | 09 January 2018

I wish the Catholic Church would be willing to make the radical changes necessary to be more egalitarian and inclusive, but I fear they will not. Women must play a more equal part in the running of the Church on all levels. The Church also needs to be less judgemental and more loving and honest. We have a lot to do if there is hope for our future.
Catherine Miller | 10 January 2018

As a Roman Catholic, I am not convinced that the hierarchy and clergy will drive the necessary change. Yes, apologies have been made, and we have seen the beginnings of appropriate safeguards and standards being put into place. However, this is only the beginning. What is needed throughout the RC Church in Australia, is a total change to the governance of the Church. It can no longer be a top-down model. Hierarchy and clergy are too hard-wired into this model to actually make the change. Until we have a genuine synodical model made up of laity, clergy and hierarchy, whereby there is a diocesan synod set up in every diocese occurring say, every three years with no restrictions on topics and concerns, there will be no change. Add to this a General synod with all dioceses having input also on a three-yearly cycle for example. Otherwise, we will continue to stagnate. Vatican II gave us this in its document Lumen Gentium over 50 years ago! As far as I am aware, no diocese has done this. Add to that, our parish system must change such that a parish council consisting of the appropriately skilled persons is elected by regular parishioners periodically to ensure that the parish is run successfully, including on-going intelligent adult faith education. The parish council will have a say in the appointment of the appropriate priest as parish priest. This would apply to parishes with diocesan priests, as well as those parishes of a diocese staffed by religious orders. No exceptions. I suggest that this system needs to be in place sooner than later as we do not have another 50 years to get it right. There will be no need to worry about the shortage of priests as there will be few parishes left! One would hope that this is on the agenda for the 2020 Synod. But even that may be too late.
Thomas Amory | 11 January 2018

Thank you for a clear and heartfelt commentary on the great issues before us as Catholics and Citizens. As a woman I can say I hope and pray that the authorities in the Church have the grace to see that the need for change is now imperative and only good can come from a fresh look at the inclusion of faithful women in all aspects of church life inc the diaconate and priesthood. I hope this doesn't get swept under the carpet again as irrelevant. Don't gaze at medieval appropriate discussion now - be brave, original and aware.
Faye Lawrence | 11 January 2018

Making celibacy mandatory for every aspirant to the priesthood has long been identified as the main factor in psychosexual immaturity and increased risk of deviancy--the evidence is exhaustively reviewed in Kevin People's "Trapped In a Closed World: Catholic Culture and Sexual Abuse". But I fear the bishops will remain in denial about their defective seminary formation despite the witness of the almost untainted married clergy of Eastern and orthodox rites. The fearfully conservative young priests emerging addicted to Latin and lace suggest the clericalist tide has not yet turned.
Tim Macnaught | 11 January 2018

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