Church at centre of Royal Commission issue paper

Royal Commission
Gail Furness, senior counsel, stands in front of a screen displaying Cardinal George Pell as he holds a Bible while appearing via video link from a hotel in Rome, Italy, to testify at the Royal Commission Into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse on 29 February. Photo: CNS/Reuters handout

According to its website, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse from time to time releases issues papers on “topics of interest to its work and recommendations, to allow organisations and individuals an opportunity to provide their opinions and expertise in an open forum”.

Last week its 11th issue paper was issued.

Titled Catholic Church: Final Hearing, it seeks submissions in advance of a “wrap up” hearing into the Catholic Church.

Unlike previous public hearings relating to the Catholic Church, this final hearing will not focus on a particular school or parish, nor will it evaluate the experience of a specific victim or the crimes perpetrated by any offender.

Instead, it will look at the Church’s structure, its culture and its governance and what relevance, if any, aspects of these have to the occurrence of child sexual abuse and the response to survivors.

The hearing has been foreshadowed by the Commissioner, Justice Peter McClellan, for some time but speculation about the issues which the final hearing would address is now over, with the issues paper outlining the areas of interest for the upcoming hearing.

Around 20 items are specifically listed for review in the issues paper, including Catholic theology and doctrine, the Church’s structure and governance, including the role of the Vatican, canon law, mandatory celibacy and the operation of the Sacrament of Confession.

One of the questions raised asks whether and to what extent any factors that have contributed to the occurrence of child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions are unique to the Catholic Church.

In addition to this, the Royal Commission is seeking feedback on what is being done to prevent abuse and to respond to survivors, with a particular focus on what has changed since the commission began its work in 2013.

It is seeking submissions from all interested parties, including survivor advocacy groups, academics, clergy and religious (past and present) and the lay faithful.

Anyone with an opinion on these areas of Catholic Church structure, teaching and culture is invited to provide a response.

The hearing will be a critical one for the Church and the submissions made to it and the evidence heard during the public hearings could form the basis for a number of recommendations made in relation to the Church in the commission’s final report, which is due in December 2017.

Justice McClellan has already said that the hearing and the recommendations may result in “a significant challenge to the manner of operation of the Catholic Church” and the broad list of issues indicates that the Royal Commission sees the structure and governance of the Catholic Church, Church law and teaching as being within its purview.

At this stage, no other issues paper has been released which seeks submissions on any other institution, religious or secular, government or non-government.

It is unclear whether any other institution or faith tradition will be the subject of a similar summary hearing before the end of the Commission’s work.

No others have been announced at this stage.

The date for the final hearing into the Catholic Church is yet to be announced, but the Commission has indicated that it will occur either towards the end of this year, or the beginning of 2017.