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Church, stand in the light: The Final phase of the Royal Commission

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Nigel Zimmermann, Senior Advisor Church Policy at the Australian Catholic University.

For all Catholics, and not just the Bishops, the Royal Commission has been a time of exposure, in which the weaknesses and hypocrisies of a number of Catholic leaders, ordained and lay, were placed permanently on the public record. We have felt overwhelmed by the numbers of children who suffered abuse at the hands of some members of the Church, and whose lives have become testaments of survival rather than fulfillment.

For three difficult weeks from Monday 6 February, the Catholic Church in Australia is undergoing a gruelling process of reflection, accusation, and renewal. In the 50th hearing of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and the 16th hearing to focus especially on institutions of the Catholic Church, archbishops, senior clergy and formation and ecclesial specialists are facing questions amid an atmosphere of scrutiny and increasing transparency. The Royal Commission invites the whole Church to account for it’s history and to stand in the light of transparency and accountability, a struggle to which the laity are equally called.

The somber tone is reflected in the various messages from Bishops issued to prepare their people for the devastating particulars in what is being called the ‘Catholic wrap-up’. Words like ‘difficult’, ‘tragic’, and ‘gruelling’ are being linked to phrases like ‘failure of leadership’, ‘loss of trust’, and ‘the shame of the Church’.

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The numbers alone are heartbreaking: 37 per cent of all private sessions of the Royal Commission with survivors of abuse related to the Catholic Church; between 1980 and 2015, 4,444 people alleged incidents of child sexual abuse in relation to 93 Catholic Church authorities; over 1,000 institutions are implicated.

Stories of cover-ups, and a general misapprehension of the extent of abuse became common features of each of the hearings, and not just for Catholics. A terrible wound in Australian institutional life has been uncovered, still bleeding, and brought into the light of public attention. The word ‘sorry’ has become common, and for many bishops, clergy and religious, it has become an oft-repeated word to individuals who have experienced abuse, to their friends and loved ones, to their family, as well as to lawyers and the media. Liturgies of lament have been celebrated, because the word ‘sorry’ doesn’t always cut it, and we have had to learn that the scale of abuse often requires a serious pause, and a thoughtful process of conversion is required in our language. For example, we tend to throw words like ‘survivors’ around, without stopping to ask what people in that category might wish to be called.

Without looking past the suffering, we learn from those who have experienced abuse that they get too many labels from other people. They remain persons, our friends and family, our brothers and sisters, our brethren, and not merely victims or survivors. The words we use deserve scrutiny, and we must re-learn the art of listening more so than of speaking. Not an easy task, but an important one.

After four long years, the Royal Commission is reaching the end of its work, but the work of cultural change has to include all of us, and in fact it had begun some years before the Royal Commission was announced in 2013.

For every person who works in a parish, a youth group, a Catholic School, a Catholic hospital or social services agency, they are acutely aware of the high standards of care expected of them in the care of young people, and a series of regularly reviewed processes are in effect across all these institutions. No doubt these will require continual refinement in the years to come, but the shame of what has transpired has inspired people to step up and lead change in these key areas of the Church’s work. We all have a responsibility to put into place best practices in anticipation of a reformed context for our work and mission.

Which brings me to my main point: This whole experience is an invitation for the Church in Australia to step into the light, which is defined ultimately by God, shared by God, and made possible by God. The Catholic singer Matt Maher says in his song Christ is Risen:

Oh Church! Come stand in the light!

“Oh Church, stand in the light”, is a strangely beautiful turn of phrase. We don’t often speak like that. We think of Christ and his light of truth shining above us, or within us. We don’t think of the light as something we have to step into, because that implies that we might have been in the dark. How could we be in the dark? We are Christians, baptised into the Body of Christ under the power of the Holy Spirit, who seals us in Confirmation and brings us to the Sacraments for grace and mercy. Could it be that we looked past our own shared responsibilities and allowed some darkness into our midst.

Alas, the Royal Commission shows us that is precisely what happened. Finding ways to address the darkness will be a long-term and sustained project, and it will require more than a hard look at clericalism. It will need lay people to step up to their responsibilities with a commitment to truth, facts, and evidence. The Catholic faith has always asked this of us, but now circumstance demands it.

We are of course all imperfect. What we call the ‘Church militant’, I find myself increasingly thinking of as the ‘Church shuffling along’. That’s not too bad an image, because the term ‘Church militant’ comes from the Latin Ecclesia militans, which does not refer to warfare so much as to the struggle against sin and evil. The Church in the world is that portion of the fathful who struggle onwards in faith, despite the sufferings and complexities of our earthly lives.

We’ve learned that a great number of adults have felt their sufferings and struggles were hidden in the dark for a long time, and a lot of children – innocent kids – were not safe from abuse in the care of parishes, schools, residential homes, and other Church institutions. As a father, this fact is confronting and, to put it mildly, a cause of fear.

The Royal Commission, and the many years that follow it, is a time of grace because it is a chance to tell truth and face fears, and this is what it means to step into the light. Christ is the light, and all truth can be found in him. But we have to step towards him with some trust.

This is perhaps the hard part for ordinary Catholics around Australia. For the Bishops and for the clergy and many religious they have had to pour hours of time into reflecting on the tales of horror, and put into place policies to safeguard children and the vulnerable. A bigger conversation is taking place in the Church around the world on these issues and how to face them. Hard tasks lay ahead. For ordinary Catholics, who are at the receiving end of such policies and, for the most part, we merely hear and read the news about the Royal Commission. If we are a Church that really stands in the light, and is open to God’s promise of truth and mercy, then it belongs to every one of us to be diligent about the protection of children and the vulnerable. I have already heard people complain about the ‘paper work’ that is required of them when they begin a ministry or task, as if the parish or the diocese is just creating unnecessary bureaucracy. Unfortunately, we live in a heavily bureaucratic culture, in which forms and paperwork pile up before our eyes.

But make no mistake, we have to walk through these steps with enthusiasm if we are to foster a culture of care and protection to those who are young and innocent. None of us enjoy more paperwork and administration for the government or to join a new organization or to sign up to a new business arrangement, but we do it because we have to. We don’t enjoy more checks and balances, clearer lines of reporting and governance or stricter policies, but it adds up to a part of what we call accountability. Surely a gift of the laity to the Church is one of professional diligence in the face of the challenges at hand. Whatever steps are asked of us to guard the young and to build a culture of child-safety should be welcomed rather than merely tolerated. A culture of child-safety and protection will not be built by begrudging attitudes and half-hearted measures, and the season has come for all Church leaders to graciously learn from the wisdom and insights of parents.

As always, we each have a part in changing the culture, and that will be a harder task than building new systems of protection. Changing a culture is a generational endeavor, and it needs a lot of heroes along the way to make it happen.

The Royal Commission is hard work for everyone. But mostly it’s been difficult for those whose stories are marked by tragedy and suffering, and whose cries fell on deaf ears. Crucially, the time is before us to embrace transparency and accountability, and ensure the Church stands apart from the darkness. To leave the darkness, you have to step into the light.

Hyperlinks added by The Catholic Weekly.

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