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Day 13 of the Royal Commission’s Catholic wrap up: summary and analysis – 23/2/2017

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Photo: Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

The thirteenth 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.

The Commission began at 8am, with three members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Professor Sheila the Baroness Hollins, Kathleen McCormack AM and Bill Kilgallon OBE, giving evidence.

In the afternoon, Australia’s five metropolitan Archbishops, Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP of Sydney, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB from Perth and Archbishop Philip Wilson from Adelaide.

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Work of the Pontifical Commission

The witnesses explained that the role of the Pontifical Commission is in providing advice about policy and education. They said that their work is done mainly through working groups in six different areas, with meetings in plenary discussing the work done by these groups and formulating recommendations to present to the Holy Father.

Difficulties faced by the Pontifical Commission

The witnesses explained to the Royal Commission that the Pontifical Commission does not sit within any particular Vatican office (dicastery) because its remit is broad and cuts across many different groups. While this was beneficial, the Pontifical Commission also had to build relationships with each agency, which could pose difficulties.

Ms McCormack told the Royal Commission that the Pontifical Commission’s work was lacking because of its small budget. Mr Kilgallon agreed, but also said that the Pontifical Commission had never been denied resources when asking for them, and it was confirmed that further requests for funding will likely be made after the next Pontifical Commission meeting.

The witnesses also spoke of the difficulty of working across the world, including in jurisdictions where child abuse is not even considered a crime. They told the Royal Commission that in certain countries, child protection was about mainly about preventing them from being drafted into military service or pushed into sex trafficking, with the consent of authorities.

Continuing professional development

Baroness Hollins advocated for compulsory continuing professional development for clergy, but noted that any ‘licensing’ system of priests linked to continuing education or professional supervision should not affect the sacramental aspect of a priest’s role, but only other parts of his ministry.

Mandatory reporting

Senior Counsel assisting the Royal Commission, Gail Furness SC, asked why there had not been a guideline introduced which would require mandatory reporting regardless of the civil laws of the relevant countries. The witnesses explained that in countries which have some form of sharia law, the victim or person reporting sexual abuse was also punished. Mr Kilgallon suggested the guidelines would likely require reporting unless there would be danger to the victim.

In the afternoon, Australia’s five metropolitan archbishops gave evidence before the Commission.

Failures in leadership

Each archbishop was asked whether they agreed with Archbishop Costelloe’s written statement which suggested that the sexual abuse crisis indicated a “catastrophic failure,” and specifically, a catastrophic failure of leadership in the Church in Australia.

Archbishop Costelloe said that it was a catastrophic failure in leadership, and that the failures in other respects, such as the failure to keep people faithful to their commitments, were also related to poor leadership. All the other archbishops agreed.

Archbishop Fisher said that those who responded were either “criminally negligent” in their failures, or were stuck as deer in the headlights. This response prompted applause from those in the room.

Institutional responsibility

Ms Furness asked whether the archbishops considered there to be an institutional responsibility for the abuse scandal. All of them agreed, but made some additional comments.

Archbishop Wilson highlighted that there were many parishioners who were not responsible for the scandal. Archbishop Fisher said that while individuals should be held to account for their deeds and failure to respond, the whole community hangs its head in shame and the present leaders have a responsibility to do what they can to bring about redress.

Archbishop Coleridge said that the institutional responsibility should not be underestimated, even though it does not negate the individual responsibility. He said that a Church so deeply embedded in society and responding to the demands of the Gospel have a solemn obligation to be part of the solution, working alongside others.

Apologies and meetings with survivors

Each archbishop gave the Commission details of previous public apologies they have given, in both written and oral form. Archbishop Fisher repeated the apology before the Commission, saying:

I repeat again, in this forum today, my apology for the shameful things that happened, especially the harm to victims.

They each then spoke about private meetings with survivors, both through the formal Towards Healing or Melbourne Response, and in other settings where the survivors did not go through a Church process. Archbishop Fisher said that he had initiated contact with some survivors after hearing their story, and also through survivor groups. He said that he would meet survivors wherever they felt comfortable, including in coffee shops, at a park or even a cricket field.

How the crisis happened

The archbishops were all asked about how they thought the crisis occurred. Archbishop Costelloe repeated a previous comment from Archbishop Coleridge that the Church behaved as a “law unto itself,” Archbishop Wilson spoke of ignorance, and Archbishop Hart said that there was an ‘unreality’ in the way bishops operated, not connecting with the crimes.

Archbishop Fisher spoke about tremendous ignorance of the prevalence in the community, in families and in the Church, ignorance of the terrible damage it caused and the repetitive nature of the abuse. He also said that there was a lack of empathy from the leaders, and a desire to protect not only the Church, but the ‘leadership class’ including parents and teachers who did not believe reports from children.

Archbishop Coleridge commented that there were not “good” or “bad” bishops, but rather all of them had made the same mistakes. He described them as invariably ‘company men,’ with a passionate commitment to the institution which made them blind to the individuals. He also spoke of looking at abuse in a ‘spiritualised’ manner, which he said was a moment where the Church’s strength became a weakness.

Ensuring failures do not occur again

The bishops spoke of greater collaboration on the issue of child sexual abuse at a local, national and international level. They also spoke of consultative leadership, telling the Commission that the culture of the Church had changed such that both priests and the faithful would not allow a bishop to exercise the same type of autocratic, monarchical leadership which contributed to the failures of the past.

Archbishop Fisher told the Commission that culturally, attitudes towards sex, power and religion has also changed; there is a focus on seeing power as being used for service, the language and discussion around sex has changed, and that there is a greater willingness for people to critique religion and religious leaders.

Some brief thoughts from a Catholic perspective

The appearance of the metropolitan archbishops together at the Commission was undoubtedly a significant moment; I’d dare say it is unprecedented not only in Australia, but in the world. For this reason, their appearance attracted a lot of attention, and pretty much everything said is worthy of reflection.

But I did find the discussion of institutional responsibility to be the most poignant.

The offending at which the Commission has looked and the institutional response to that offending happened before these archbishops were in positions of significant leadership (I acknowledge that there are some exceptions.) For the most part, they inherited this crisis.

Still, none of them made reference to this; each of them told the Commission that the Church, and its present leadership, had responsibility for this crisis and for the healing and redress which the Commission has made clear still needs to happen. They spoke both of the individual responsibility of the offenders and those who provided negligent response, but also of the institutional responsibility. While Archbishop Wilson acknowledged that there are many faithful who have had no part in this, Archbishop Fisher nevertheless spoke of our collective shame, and the resulting responsibility.

So often during this Royal Commission, there has been a criticism of the Church viewing the sexual abuse crisis in terms of “sin and forgiveness” rather than “crime and punishment.” But I think in this case, viewing this in terms of “sin and forgiveness” is necessary. The logic of crime and punishment has nothing to teach us about collective responsibility for another’s crimes. The logic of crime and punishment does not tell us that why we, as Catholics in 2017, need to accept as our duty to respond to the survivors of sexual abuse. For that, we need to speak about sexual abuse in terms of sin. It’s one of the great ironies of this Commission; that understanding sexual abuse as a sin instead of a crime contributed to this horror, but it is only that same understanding which will help redress the damage.

We must be prepared to see sin, our own sin and that of others, from the vantage point of the Cross. And that involves a complexity of identification that is quite amazing. On the Cross, Christ, who is God and man, made himself sin for us, becoming a curse, so that he might be identified fully with all sinners. In being united with him, we are united with ourselves in a new way; we are also united with all other sinners, so that, as I have said, we must not be too preoccupied with whether it is my sin or yours. But also on the same Cross, our Lord identified himself with the victim of every sin. And so in being united with him we are also united with the victims of sin, including – and what a mystery of reconciliation is lurking here! – including the victims of our own sins. We are also united with the victims of every other sin, and this is one of the main sources of true intercession and vicarious suffering. From this vantage point we can begin to learn how to recognise to the full the intense horror of sin, while at the same time viewing all men with compassion and a sense of belonging.

Father Simon Tugwell OP, Prayer: Living with God

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