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Sex abuse commission shows Church has a long way to go
SYDNEY (SE): The three weeks of public shaming of the Australian Church before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse held in Sydney, concluded on February 23 with the archbishops of Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide being jointly cross-examined on a number of issues, including the sacramental seal of confession.
In its examination of structural responses of the Church to the crisis of abuse within its ranks, the commission chose specifically Catholic issues as part of its investigation.
In response to senior counsel, Gail Furness, the bishops fielded questions on a hypothetical situation about a girl called Sally, who reported she had been sexually abused to a priest in the confessional.
The responses of the five bishops differed somewhat, with one, Archbishop Philip Wilson, from Adelaide, giving quite a different story from the other four.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported Archbishop Anthony Fisher, from Sydney, as saying he would protect the trust that nothing uttered under the seal of confession could ever be repeated, but would strongly encourage Sally to report the matter to the authorities.
However, he noted that if he could not persuade her, it would remain confidential.
He added that otherwise it would be like bugging the confessional box, a position that Archbishop Denis Hart, from Melbourne, supported.
However, Archbishop Wilson said that in light of his studies on the matter, he is of the opinion that the seal of the confessional only applies to sins that are confessed and, as Sally is telling a story in which she is a victim and not confessing a sin, there should be leeway for something to be done.
“It seemed to me to be plausible in those circumstances that if a child told you this was happening to them, they’re not confessing a sin, they’re just giving you some information about what’s happening to them and in that doctrine, it would be possible then to do something about it,” the Australian national broadcaster quoted the archbishop of Adelaide as telling the commission.
However, the combined opinion of the bishops was not clear when one commissioner, Robert Fitzgerald, described their dilemma as having two sacred obligations; one to protect children according to scripture and Church teaching, as well as commitments to civil society, and the other to protect the seal of the confessional.
“In a sense, the Church is in a dilemma, a dilemma that it equally wishes to protect children and equally wishes to maintain the seal of confession,” Fitzgerald said.
The National Catholic Register reported that the bishops agreed that it is indeed a dilemma, but differed in their responses on how they would handle the situation of someone confessing to abusing children.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, from Brisbane, said that he may withhold absolution unless the person agreed to report the matter.
While Archbishop Hart agreed with him, Archbishop Fisher said he would exhort them to act and seek help, but with the qualification, “I don’t think I can make a condition of absolution that a person report themselves.”
In his evidence, Bishop Vincent Long van Nguyen, from Parramatta, told the commission he was abused by a priest when he first came to Australia.
The first Vietnamese boatperson to become a bishop in the Land Down Under said, “That had a powerful impact on me and how I want to... walk in the shoes of other victims and really endeavour to attain justice and dignity for them.”
Bishop Nguyen spoke of the scourge of clericalism, which had been identified by the commission as a root cause of much of the abuse, saying that titles, privileges and the Church’s institutional dynamics breed clerical superiority and elitism.
He says he cringes when parishioners call him Your Lordship, begging the question as to why these honorifics are used for those who seek to follow the one who emptied himself and became a slave.
Pope Francis told his curia in 2014 that clericalism must be broken down, saying that the option for the poor is primarily theological; not cultural, sociological, political or philosophical; but the radical dream of a Church which is poor for the poor.
Spiritual power is strong and can easily be abused badly. Another commissioner, Andrew Murray, told the bishops that much of the conversation of the day had been dominated by the play of the power dynamic between priests and parishioners.
“We have been told in private sessions that at the moments of abuse, that the child at the time—because of what they had been taught—thought they were being abused by the representative of God, so it has immense and immediate meaning with respect to child sex abuse,” Murray explained.
When Archbishop Wilson responded, “That’s about the most horrible thing I could ever hear. It is just awful that people could behave like that,” Murray replied, “We’ve heard that many times.”
Bishop Nguyen agreed with a comment from the commission that the Catholic Church is one of the few organisations that does not conduct regular performance reviews on its clerical personnel, when he said, “There is no accountability that reaches outwards or downwards and that is a critical problem.”
He added, “The laity have no meaningful or direct participation in the appointment, supervision and removal of a parish priest. I think that needs to change.”
While Archbishop Coleridge told Furness that he could not force a priest to undergo a review, he also conceded, “I appreciate more clearly now than I did… that I have more sanctions available than I thought.”
While the five archbishops agreed that the divergence of opinion over confession is a matter that must be taken up seriously in the Church, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors set up by Pope Francis described the worldwide Church investigative body as being in danger of becoming a wall flower in the struggle to protect children.
Kathleen McCormack said that the budget allocated by the Vatican is tiny compared with the job description, resembling a diocesan office more than a worldwide body.
The determination of a government to enact any policy is normally measured by the allocation of adequate funding and, when Sheila Hollins, a member of the pope’s commission from England, was asked why there was no request to Pope Francis to increase the funding, she said it would be included in their report when the initial review is completed.
At the end of the day, the president of the Australian Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Hart, said in a statement, “I will do all within my power to ensure the abuse of the past never happens again, that the reforms my fellow bishops and religious leaders have endorsed over the past years will be implemented. I reiterate that the Catholic Church in Australia will continue to support the survivors of child sexual abuse.”
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