Saturday, 6 April 2013

On royal commissions and inquiries: are we getting the response right?

The Pope spoke yesterday to the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, Archbishop Muller,  reaffirming Pope Benedict XVI's tough stance on the handling of the child abuse scandal, noting the importance of this for the Church's witness and credibility.

There is no issue more pertinent to the credibility of the Church in Australia at the moment, where the several inquiries now underway are generating bad press for the Church daily.

The question is whether or not the Church here can in fact recover credibility any time soon.

My guess is that a lot of our bishops are going to have to 'resign' (perhaps assisted by a Benedict-style push) before that can happen, at least if the handling of the current Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry is anything to go by.

Truth, Justice and Healing?

The main game in Australia at the moment is, of course, is the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which started its public hearings last week.

But the two other more regionally focused inquiries - the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into Child Abuse by religious and other institutions and the New South Wales Special Commission of Inquiry concerning the investigation of certain child sexual abuse allegations in the Hunter region - are no doubt taking up some of the attention of the relevant bishops.

The Church has been fairly vigorous in asserting its desire to co-operate, and in putting its own case.

Indeed, this last week saw the appointment of the thirteen members of the Church's Truth, Justice and Healing Council, set up to advise the bishops on the handling of the Royal Commission.  On paper at least, the membership of the new Council looks credible.

Whether they can deliver the fundamental rethink that seems to be needed remains to be seen.

The track record of the Church so far does not seem to me to be that great.

Take the case of the State of Victoria.

Police vs the Church in Victoria

The Victorian parliamentary Inquiry has been running now since April last year.

The Church was unable to meet the original deadline for submissions (August 21 2012), but eventually lodged a fairly comprehensive one on the last day of an extended deadline (September 21).

It also established a website, Facing the Truth, to put its side of the case and respond to claims being made.

Yet despite the attempts to get on the front foot, it seems to have become embroiled in an unseemly public brawl with the Victorian Police over who is most to blame.

It is hard to understand, from the outside, just what is at the root of the tension there, but if the media reports are to be believed, the problem lies in the interesting role played by the 'Independent' Commissioner employed by the Archdiocese of Melbourne as part of the 'Melbourne Response' (Melbourne is the only diocese in Australia not to use the 'Towards Healing' process agreed by the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference).

Just one of the allegations from the police is that the Commissioner tipped off a priest-perpetrator, enabling him to destroy evidence; the diocese denies this.

But whatever the truth of the matter, the level of distrust that is evident is surely problematic for the one diocese that continues to insist on going it alone with its own unique process for handling these matters.

And to me at least, the whole tone of the brawl suggests a deeper malaise.


Take for example the police claim that the Church in Victoria has not reported a single case of child abuse.

It's true, as the Church has acknowledged in one of its 'fact sheets' responding to alleged 'misconceptions':

"Misconception: The Church has not reported a single case to the police

This is correct...."

Right, so it is not in fact a misconception or error at all is it?

Yet in a letter to the Victorian Inquiry attacking the Police Submission, Archbishop Hart seems aggrieved that the police waited until April 2012 to raise the matter publicly, and continues to insist that the Churches failure to report cases to the police is entirely appropriate.

In many States in this country, and many places overseas, reporting cases of suspected child abuse to the police is (rightly in my view) mandatory.  

But even where it isn't, one might hope that the Church would be proactive in modelling correct behaviour for the rest of us, based on an understanding of the reasons why victims may be reluctant to take this step, such as fear of retribution from those in positions of power, as well as adverse reaction from friends, family and fellow parishioners.

Instead, the Archbishop's letter talks about the challenge for the Inquiry 'and the Victorian Police' being to find ways of 'encouraging' victims to go to the Police.

The Archbishop's March 31 letter provides an extended treatment of this issue, but the basic line hasn't changed since the fact sheet mentioned above went onto the Facing the Truth website recently.

After admitting that the Church had not in fact reported any priests, religious or lay employees to the police, the fact sheet then goes on to justify this state of affairs, pointing it out it wasn't under a legal obligation to report cases, tries to encourage victims to go to the police, and was respecting the privacy of victims (my bolding; my comments are in red):

"...The law in Victoria does not require the reporting of criminal offences to the police. [But the issue is not just the letter of the law but basic principles of morality that should be modelled by the Church.] The decision to report belongs, at law, to the victim.  Therefore the Church has no obligation to report abuse involving individuals to the police.[So the Church learns about accusations against its representatives.  But feels no 'obligation' to report a possible serious crime!]

Nonetheless, the Church encourages victims to report to the police, and we would strongly prefer that every victim did so. Indeed, the Church’s processes have helped victims report many offenders when they would not otherwise have done so. We do assist those victims who choose to go to the police. 

Victims are almost always adults before they come forward, and the law recognises the right of adults to choose whether to report allegations involving them to the police.[But there is a tradeoff between the individual's right to choose, and the need to protect other potential victims.  And that is precisely why the Church should be finding a way to get the police involved regardless of the victim's desire, not least since they may be able to turn up other victims who are willing to go to court.] The Church respects that choice.

The Church’s preference is for the police to handle investigations of all criminal matters. That is their role, and they have powers the Church does not. However, some victims don’t want to go to the police, or to a court. They seek help privately. We don’t ignore their wishes.

In our submission to the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry, Facing the Truth, we recommend a way of reporting offences to the police that maintains the privacy of those victims who want anonymity.

Criticism of the Church for not reporting allegations, and suggestions that failing to report amounts to “covering up” offences, are misplaced. The criticism should instead be directed at the law. The Church agrees with that criticism and, in Facing the Truth, has called for reform.[And yet it is not, as far as I can gather, actually advocating mandatory reporting!] "


In fact the whole tone of the Archbishop's letter comes across to me at least as arguing about semantics, and denying the underlying reality.

Take for example the Archbishop's complaint that the Police Submission claims that "over thirty religious leaders have been convicted of child sexual abuse offences in Victoria".

As the Archbishop acknowledges, this may not refer solely to the Catholic Church, but perhaps includes other organisations, given that to date some 14 priests have been convicted (although the Archbishop doesn't mention the numbers of religious, teachers and other employees in Catholic institutions who may also have been convicted in his letter, which may well bring the tally up closer to the 30 claimed).

The Archbishop, however, disputes the number altogether, impliedly on the basis that priests are not 'religious leaders'.   He states that

"To the best of my knowledge, while some priests and religious personnel have been convicted, no bishop or leader of a religious congregation has been convicted of child sexual offences."

Well, not yet at any rate.  But surely you don't have to be a bishop in order to be considered a 'religious leader' in your community!

All in all the message this seems to send, to me at least, is that the Church is still in legalistic mode defending itself rather than eating humble pie as it deserves given what happened within its walls, and taking the chance for a genuine rethink.

Let's hope the new Truth, Justice and Healing Council can change this.

Franciscan leadership

It is true of course that some will take the opportunity the Royal Commission represents to attack the Church unfairly, and even make false accusations.  We've seen more more than one particularly egregious example of this already in the Fairfax media, and the Sydney Archdiocese has now set out another example on its website, in response to yet another outrageous bit of distorted reporting by The Age's Barney Zwartz.

The Church does of course have the right to set out the true facts of the matter and demand that they be reported accurately.

But I wonder whether this kind of tit for tat war is really the most constructive approach to adopt in the circumstances.

What really needs to happen, perhaps, is for the Church to look to the example offered by Pope Francis and reach out.

The hierarchy needs, above all, to humble itself, and make real gestures of outreach and solidarity with victims.

Instead of arguing about technicalities, it needs to accept the criticism and do a radical rethink of its strategy.

None of that seems to be happening at the moment, quite the contrary. 

A lost generation of priests

The origins of the cover up in Australia don't, in the main, lie with our current bishops, but rather in that generation who came back brainwashed from Vatican II and in flinging open the doors of the Church, and let in the smoke of Satan.

Yet most of our current priests and bishops went through seminary under their supervision, at a time and in places when traditional moral theology was tossed out the window, and secular psychology was in vogue.  

The result was that, as Archbishop Coleridge explained on the ABC's Q&A Program last week, instead of child rape being viewed as a vile sin, a crime that warranted both punishment and action to prevent recurrences, it was viewed as "a kind of a moral problem and with the right kind of admonition and spiritual discipline and a fresh start that the whole".

Perhaps some have now done the necessary reading, study and meditation to correct the deficiencies in their seminary education.

Most though, I suspect still have those subversive volumes, such as Fr Richard O'Brien's rightly condemned Catholicism, on their bookshelves, or ingrained in their minds.

And consider the kind of general formation they received in the era where, when he took charge of Melbourne, Cardinal Pell had to force the resignation of the entire Melbourne Seminary faculty in order to re-institute basics like daily Mass there!

Has enough been done to correct the poor formation received by a generation of priests?  Is it too late to even be worth trying, given the greying demographic involved?

Personally, I think an effort has to be made.

To date, most of the focus has been on child abuse.

But we already know that homosexual infiltration of the priesthood is a problem in this country - just go back to the claims about his time in the Adelaide Seminary by the former Archbishop Hepworth upheld by the Melbourne process (!), but where the Adelaide Archdiocese cleared one of its current priests of a claim of (homosexual) rape.  Australian columnist (and Adelaide traditional Mass community member) Christopher Pearson backed up the claims about the state of the Adelaide seminary  at the time with his own story.  From everything known about the problems of the Manly and Melbourne Seminaries in the late 60s and early 70s, the problem was not confined to Adelaide!

We've also had strong indications that Australia has a big problem with clergy breaking their promise of celibacy and rejecting any commitment to chastity when it comes to relationships with women.  Already at least one bishop (and possibly two) have 'resigned' over this issue, and there have been a few well publicized cases relating to priests (the most recent relating to Fr Knowles, former Provincial of the Blessed Sacrament Congregation).

All the indications are that there are many more such cases, still being swept under the carpet.

Franciscan leadership!

Pope Francis is clearly deeply focused on the child abuse scandal, as his meeting with Archbishop Muller signals.  The communique released on the meeting says that: 

"In particular, the Holy Father recommended that the Congregation, continuing along the lines set by Benedict XVI, act decisively with regard to cases of sexual abuse, first of all by promoting measures for the protection of minors, as well as in offering assistance to those who have suffered abuse, carrying out due proceedings against the guilty, and in the commitment of bishops' conferences to formulate and implement the necessary directives in this area that is so important for the Church's witness and credibility. The Holy Father assured that victims of abuse are present in a particular way in his prayers for those who are suffering."

That's a strong signal so early in his Pontificate.

Let's pray and urge our bishops to similarly listen and respond to this call for radical conversion.

Personally, I'm pessimistic about the prospects for reform from within.

But if we can't do it ourselves quickly, I'm reasonably confident that the Royal Commission and assorted inquiries, perhaps aided by a continuation of Pope Benedict XVI's policy of purging of the ranks of the episcopacy at the rate of two or three a month, will eventually do the cleansing process for us.

Wouldn't be better if we did it ourselves though, even if it meant a few bishops publicly doing a mea culpa and falling on their swords?

But tell me what you think, on how the Church should approach all of this.

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