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Day of shame for Church in Australia

SYDNEY (SE): On February 6, the Catholic Church in Australia began its 21 days of shame, as the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse launched its final intensive review of the response of the Catholic Church to the crisis at a hearing in Sydney that will involve more than 60 witnesses, including the archbishops of the six most influential dioceses.

The Commission has been gathering information for four years and includes scrutiny not only of the Catholic Church, but other Churches, charitable bodies, sports clubs and government institutions. It will hear how they have responded to allegations and instances of abuse.

The assisting counsel to the Commission, Gail Furness, laid bare the shame of the Church in her opening address, pointing out that a survey has revealed that 4,444 allegations of instances of abuse between January 1980 and February 2015 were made to Church authorities.

She added that 60 per cent of survivors attending the Commission over its four years of hearings reported abuse experienced in faith-based institutions and that of the 1,880 alleged perpetrators from within the Catholic Church since 1950, there were 572 priests.

The average age of victims is 10 for girls and 11 for boys.

While the number equates to approximately seven per cent of diocesan priests, within religious congregations percentages proved to be disturbingly higher; with the John of God Brothers found to have 40 per cent of its membership involved, the Marist, Christian and Salesian Brothers around 22 per cent, De La Salle 13.8, Patrician Brothers 12.4 and Jesuits 4.8.

The Sisters of the Sacred Heart and the Sisters of Mercy Brisbane Province both had less than one per cent.

Furness described accounts from survivors as being depressingly similar, saying that children were ignored or even worse punished for reporting incidents.

Priests and religious were transferred around to communities that knew nothing of their past, documents were not kept and records destroyed, and there were what she described as cover ups.

“The Catholic priesthood give God a bad name. They’re disgraceful. They are unremorseful,” Furness stated.

Catholics had been warned prior to the beginning of the days of shame that they would be shocked at what was about to be revealed. The archbishop of Brisbane, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, made a video recording to be distributed around his archdiocese and played at all parish Masses on the previous Sunday.

A parish priest in Canberra, Father Peter Day, told parishioners on the previous Sunday that the Commission would recount a litany of man’s inhumanity to man, from which the most vulnerable would suffer.

He called them, “Stories of innocent children and their families, devastated by sexual abuse; stories of utter betrayal; stories that we would much rather not hear, but stories that we must hear.”

Francis Sullivan, the chief executive officer of the Truth Commission of the Catholic Church in Australia, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “It is the first time in the western world that the Catholic Church has been so open about its data and its records.”

He added, “What we hear will be very confronting… a miserable tale that you can’t put a coating on; it speaks of so much damage.”

Father Day warned that it will be a distressing time in which good and innocent people are being condemned by association. “But we should be careful not to fall prey to self-pity,” he pointed out, “because as hard as it is for us, we are not nearly as innocent or as damaged as the children who are only now being given a voice.”

He added, “I believe that the Church, like an addict, has hit rock bottom, has had an opportunity for rehabilitation; to transform and reform itself. We can now start to peel back those masks that have blinded us, the masks of secrecy and power that prevent us from seeing the most beautiful of things—the truth; the very thing that sets us free.”

Father Day made a strong call for an end to clericalism, or what he called an exclusively boys only club, one that seeks to lord it over others.

John Menadue, a former head of the Department of the Prime Minister for two prime ministers of different political shading and a former national director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, said in a submission to the Commission in 2013 that two issues militate against the Church acting responsibly; naming one as being the all-male clerical culture.

However, he added that he believes that the other serious structural difficulty facing the Church is its inability to share decision-making power.

He pointed to a survey taken by the Australian Bishops’ Conference among 2,800 parishioners that revealed that the vast majority respect individual priests, but not the senior leadership of the Church.

Menadue then noted that the structure gives priests too much power, so it is difficult to avoid abuse of power and that this has been a big contributing factor to the sexual abuse of minors, as ultimately it is an abuse of power.

“A contributor to this abuse has been the inability of parishioners to have a direct and meaningful role in the appointment, supervision and the removal of a parish priest,” Menadue says from his lifelong experience of sitting in the pews.

“So concerns of parishioners about alcoholism and the general performance of the parish priest cannot be effectively expressed,” he says, while strongly maintaining procedures for the selection and appointment of parish priests should effectively include parishioners in the governance mechanism.

Menadue believes that the abject failure of Church governance has had serious consequences, not only for the Church and its people, but also for the wider community that it serves.

“In this regard, external and secular scrutiny by the Royal Commission will be very helpful, although it may not necessarily be welcomed by some in the Church,” he says.

Social commentator and legal expert, Father Frank Brennan sj, put it more bluntly in an address at the Justice Awards Dinner in Parliament House in Sydney on 31 October 2012 when he said, “Clearly the Church itself cannot be left alone to get its house in order. That would be a wrongful invocation of freedom of religion in a pluralist and democratic society.”

But the issue of clericalism, of which Pope Francis has spoken often as spelling a death knell for the health of any faith community, kept coming back.

In giving evidence on the first day of the Commission, Archbishop Coleridge said there is a need for more women to be making executive decisions at the top of the Catholic Church in Australia.

“If the Catholic Church says it cannot ordain women we are correspondingly obliged to explore ways in which women can exercise genuine responsibility in the decision-making processes at the highest level,” Archbishop Coleridge said.

The president of Catholics for Renewal, Peter Johnstone, said he believes it could be argued that women would have spoken up about allegations of abuse much earlier if they had had a proper voice in the Church.

“When you exclude the people who have had experience in bringing up children... you are not going to get it right,” Johnstone insisted.

Father Day backed him up saying, “We must allow women to shape our Church as equal partners with the pope, cardinals, bishops and priests. We must dare to take up Pope Francis’ dream to be a Church which is poor for the poor, one that embraces simplicity and humility and is at home walking on the dust of the streets.”

But for the Church, he stressed that now is a time to listen to survivors. “It is a time to be overwhelmed for them. It is a time to avoid easy answers for them. It is a time to be humble for them.”

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