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Day 12 of the Royal Commission’s Catholic wrap up: summary and analysis – 22/2/2017

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Photo: Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

The eleventh day of the Royal Commission’s Catholic “wrap up” hearing was held today in Sydney. You can read a summary of yesterday’s hearings here.

Today’s panel featured heads of religious orders. The witnesses were Sister Berneice Loch RSM, from the Institute of Sisters of Mercy Australia and Papua New Guinea, Brother Peter Clinch of the Christian Brothers, Brother Peter Carroll of the Marist Brothers, Brother Ambrose Payne of the De La Salle Brothers, Brother Timothy Graham of the St John of God Brothers, Father Gregory Chambers SDB of the Salesians of Don Bosco and Father Brian McCoy SJ of the Jesuits.

Clarification from Commissioner Murray

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The hearing began with Commissioner Murray correcting a question he asked yesterday where he spoke of 7 per cent of clergy being abusers. He clarified this today, and restated the question to ensure that it was clear he was speaking of allegations of abuse only.

Outline of evidence given

The witnesses today were each asked a series of very similar questions, relating to the structure and governance of their particular order and its ministries, the professional standards policies and procedures which were currently in place, their record-keeping policies, formation and pastoral supervision practices and more.

The specific practices in each of the seven orders represented will not be covered in this summary, because, as pertinent as they are for the individual communities, there were also some common themes which were drawn out which have a broader relevance, and these will be discussed instead.

Present vocations

Sister Loch told the Commission that there were presently no novices in the order, and only two Australians in temporary vows.

Brother Clinch said that the average age of Christian Brothers in Australia is 78, and so new vocations were not being sought and the remaining Brothers will be gracious in their final years to make sure structures are in place to carry on their mission.

Brother Carroll told the Commission that two Marist Brothers made their profession in 2015, but there were not enough vocations to have a novitiate in Australia.

Brother Payne said that a De La Salle Brother made his final profession last week, and there was one aspirant currently in Bankstown.

Brother Graham told the Commission that the St John of God Brothers had 19 men left, with only one in active ministry. The remaining Brothers who were still active took care of the aged Brothers and dealing with historical claims of sexual abuse. He said that the order does not actively pursue vocations and don’t foresee any coming, so it is winding down.

Father Chambers said that there were hardly any Salesian candidates in Australia, with most coming from the Pacific region.

Father McCoy told the Commission that the Jesuits were active in schools, parishes, centres for Ignatian spirituality and publication, but that 75% of Jesuits are over the age of 60.

Reasons for high levels of abuse

Each witness gave reasons why they considered abuse to have occurred in their order, with some having to explain rates of abuse at more than 20 (or, in the case of the St John of God Brothers, more than 40) per cent of members.

Sister Loch told the Commission that she believed a desire to exert dominance contributed to abuse perpetrated by Sisters, as well as the difficult nature of the work, combined with a lack of supervision, professional development and staffing contributed to the abuse. She said that the culture needed to change so that the model of Church was not one where almost all power was highly clerical and genderised.

Brother Clinch said that in the early days of the Christian Brothers, the order valued the individual and met their needs, even to the extent of running tailor shops and bakeries. He said that when competition came in, the emphasis shifted to the image and reputation of the school, and that it was thought corporal punishment would gain better results. He described the “frenetic activity” of Brothers who woke early to complete their religious activities before the school day started, participated in extracurricular activities and pursued further studies. He said that boys entered the order at the age of 14, and so did not have an opportunity to mature, and often suffered humiliation and even abuse in their own formation.

Brother Carroll described a “web of factors” including access to children, a lack of psychological testing, poor formation and training, a sense of entitlement which is akin to clericalism, and the acceptance of Brothers from as young as 12 years of age as potential contributors.

Brother Payne told the Commission that there was a “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture of secrecy within the Brothers. He also said that given that many of the boys ministered to by the De La Salle Brothers came from troubled backgrounds, a priority was placed on finding personnel who could control young men. This, combined with a lack of supervision, aided the abuse.

Reflecting on the allegations against 40.4% of St John of God Brothers, Brother Graham said an additional relevant factor for the order was that it worked with people with disabilities and other challenging life issues, often in closed communities on islands or outside of towns. He said that in trying to develop a workforce, they sought numbers over quality, and there was little or no support or supervision in difficult ministries.

Father Chambers pointed to a false interpretation of the “loving kindness” philosophy of Don Bosco, which resulted in a propensity for over familiarity and boundary violations among Salesians and, while there were less offenders amongst the Jesuits, Father McCoy suggested entry at a young age without the opportunity to develop as a contributing factor to the abuse.

How offenders are dealt with

The witnesses gave evidence about how offenders who had either not been jailed, or had been released, were dealt with. Most were kept within the orders so that they would be able to be restricted and supervised, and were subject to safety plans (to protect the community) and care plans (to prevent self-harm.) Most of the orders said that they assisted with the legal costs of criminal cases because if they did not, the responsibility would fall on the taxpayer through legal aid.

Some comments from a Catholic perspective

In many of the hearings, we listen to the harrowing effect of sexual abuse on victims. This is crucial and should be at the forefront of our minds as we deal with this Royal Commission. But today, the testimony showed clearly the effect of the sexual abuse crisis on the ministry of the Church. The orders represented in the hearing, once significant in terms of their education, health care and other ministries now seem to be in their final stages. There are few or no vocations coming through, and the charism and works of these once very strong orders are being handed over to lay people.

Each witness was able to give a clear and often detailed answer about the factors they believe led to the crisis within their order. They have obviously reflected very much on this situation. I can imagine this to be true. These leaders can see that they may very well be the last Provincials of their order in Australia, and have to come to terms with giving their lives in service of a mission that has been so depleted due to the crimes of their Brothers. They also have to come to terms with the knowledge that this crisis – and not the works of the order around Australia – will be writ large in the memories of people going forward.

I can’t imagine the challenge that this presents. While still not comparable to the suffering of victims, it is clear that these witnesses were also deeply affected by the offending of those around them.

I don’t know what this means for the future, but I think that it is a reminder to the laity, even if not in religious life, of the need to continue the works of the religious brothers and sisters who have gone before us; not for our own sakes or even for the Church, but because despite the horror of the crisis, Australia has benefited from the works of so many dedicated missionaries, particularly in the fields of education and health care.

The hearings continue tomorrow.

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