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Australian shame has message for worldwide Church

SYDNEY (SE): The 21 days of shame of the Church in Australia reached its 14th day on February 17, but tended to drop out of the news as the submissions being made to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse were focussed more on structural problems rather the grizzly details that dominated the first week.

Although it is not only the Catholic Church that is under the commission microscope, it was presented as the worst of all organisations looked at, but the comment was made that it is also the most complex.

“It would be easy to write off the problems as a few bad apples,” Patrick Parkinson, a professor of law at the University of Sydney, said in his submission.

Parkinson, who specialises in family law, child protection and the law of equity and trusts, continued saying, “The problems that have brought the Church to the very edge of disaster and beyond, trashing its reputation as a moral leader, were never just because of a few bad apples. The problems were institutional and cultural.”

He described the structural problem as lying in the fact that although the Church theologically is an ecclesiastical community, structurally it is a mediaeval principality.

He pointed out that although technically the pope shares governance authority with bishops’ conferences, in fact this is more theological than real and, since each bishop is autonomous in his own diocese, answerable to the pope and is not subject to the national conference, it means that while the Church may have good middle level management, its top level is splintered and often ineffective.

He then pointed out that while there are talented leaders among the bishops, some are mediocre at best and others, regrettably, even worse and, although a modern bishop has all sorts of advisory committees, he is not bound by any of them.

Parkinson added that it has become obvious during the four years of hearings by the commission that a further problem lies in the independence of religious orders and congregations, which are directly responsible to the pope and their own internal governance systems, which are often overseas.

He pointed out that it is not clear how any recommendation by the commission to address the sad state of the Church can be agreed to by the various autonomous bodies that make up the Church for anything other than the time being, as autonomous leaders change periodically and could well renege on their predecessor’s commitments.

Parkinson added that he would be more optimistic if some of the worst systemic failures had been some decades ago, but they can be seen to have emerged as late as 2012, with a document called Facing the Truth, which he commented he believes does anything but.

Kathleen McPhillips, from the school of humanities and science at the University of Newcastle, listed the main issues to be looked at that were raised during the 15 hearings that have taken place.

They include clericalism, Church governance and culture, discipline, secrecy and confession, the professional level of religious formation, Catholic education, child safety and risk management.

Social commentator and lawyer, Father Frank Brennan sj, noted that since the Catholic Church was found to be the worst offender, the commission drew out the things that are specifically Catholic and peculiar to the Church for scrutiny.

The other issue that was looked at was the role of women, or lack of it, in the decision-making processes of the Church.

In this context, it was noted that the archdiocese of Adelaide had the lowest rate of abuse offences in the country and that women have played a much bigger role than anywhere else in its governance.

Its vicar for religious, chancellor, education director and director of ministry and leadership are all women.

In addressing the shocking data that emerged on the high rate of child sexual abuse that has marred the life of the Church since 1950, the director of the Church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council, Francis Sullivan, said that although the statistics do not distinguish between complaints and substantiated cases, there can be no doubt that the proportion of priests against whom claims were made undermines the credibility of the priesthood.

“These numbers are shocking; they are tragic and they are indefensible,” Sullivan said.

The discussion has even spilled over from the commission rooms in Sydney to the national parliament in Canberra, as the name of George Cardinal Pell again emerged into the public light.

Cardinal Pell has in some ways become the whipping boy for the public eye, with the media describing him as the most senior clergyman in the country, which he is not and never was (he was never president of the bishops’ conference for example).

The motion that he return to Australia to testify was put forward in the upper house by the Greens Party, founded on the environmental conservation issue, which the cardinal as a climate change skeptic had pooh-poohed consistently during his time as archbishop of Sydney.

Father Brennan points out that there was not one dissenting voice to this unusual use of the parliament, which certainly would not have happened 20 years ago.

“The suggestion that Cardinal Pell should be accountable for all wrongdoings of the Church personnel throughout Australia over many decades is not only unjust but fanciful…” the cardinal’s office in Rome said in a statement.

The Australian Council of Civil Liberties was the only cautioning voice raised. Terry O’Gorman said in a statement, “The Australian senate motion was yet another example of politicians politicising the criminal investigation and related court proceedings.”

The Brisbane lawyer added that great care has to be taken, particularly by politicians using what he dubbed the coward’s castle of parliament, to prevent the commission from becoming a witch hunt.

Father Brennan concluded by saying that hopefully the commission can formulate universal principles which can be applied to all institutions to ensure better protection for children.

”The state has a legitimate interest in ensuring that the Church structures and procedures comply with the principles and standards laid down in laws enacted by parliaments,” the Jesuit priest said.

He added that the Church must remember that it is not being singled out for special treatment and that it must develop its own structures, theology and doctrine to ensure appropriate protocols as recommended by the commission.

The Vatican did not escape the net, as it was mentioned in the submissions that its tardiness and secrecy in processing abuse claims against priests and bishops had contributed to Church negligence in regards to abusers, rather than assisting the victims in their fight to be heard.

The prayer to be prayed is that out of the shame a safer environment for the vulnerable will evolve across the country, not only in the Church, but clubs, schools and government services as well.

There are lessons for the worldwide Church in the commission hearing, as it is the first time in western history that a Church has been so open with its data and records on an issue that certainly is not unique to Australia.

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