Last week, the Royal Commission’s “Catholic wrap up” wrapped up. The three weeks of hearings culminated in two days of testimony from Australia’s five metropolitan Archbishops. There will be another few “wrap up” hearings in the coming weeks (although none as intense as ours was), and then the public case studies will finish.
After this, the Royal Commissioners will focus on their final report, which is due to Parliament on 15 December. Parliament could choose to release it on that day, or to hold onto it for some time before making it public. That report will also contain a number of recommendations, both general and specific, for institutions. And we will need to respond to those in due course.
For those of you who were not able to follow the daily online coverage of the hearings, they covered a broad range of topics and heard from clergy and lay witnesses from across Australia, as well as the Holy See, Ireland, the United States and New Zealand.
The hearings began with the results of a data project which reported on the number of allegations against clergy, religious and lay employees and volunteers within the Church between 1950 and 2015. Outside the Commission sessions, the numbers were spliced and diced by statisticians to reach the ‘headline’ number that 7 per cent of clergy had had allegations of child sexual abuse made against them.
There are questions about whether the weighting method employed by the statisticians was appropriate, and an acknowledgment that the vast majority of these allegations relate to the 1950s, 60s and 70s – but the number remains.
Witnesses conjectured as to the contributing factors to the sexual abuse crisis, including the structure and governance of the Church itself, the celibate nature of the priesthood, the methods of screening of seminarians and the formation they receive within seminaries, the inviolable seal of confession and the amorphous and enigmatic notion of ‘clericalism.’
Some of the ideas raised by the witnesses were important and valid criticisms of the culture and practices within the Church which could have led, not just to the abuse of children, but to the inexcusable cover up by those who should have known and done better.
Some of the ideas raised by the witnesses seemed to be less about the protection of children and more about their individual hobby horse (eg, the wearing of clerical dress, the use of honorific titles for bishops or whatever.) But it was to be expected; all of us knowingly or unknowingly bring our own biases to even the most grave of situations.
There was also a discussion of the future, and how we ensure this (or anything like this) never happens again. One of the key areas of focus was the ongoing supervision and formation of clergy, which was interesting, because the discussions ran alongside those of the rapid rise in lay leadership within the Church, and there was no real discussion about the ongoing supervision and formation of those lay leaders.
The other main item of discussion was the establishment of Catholic Professional Standards Limited with its ability to set safeguarding standards, audit compliance on those standards and publicly report on them. I have expressed my concerns with this model in a previous column, so I will not revisit it here.
After reflecting on the three weeks of hearings, it seemed to me that the Commission was trying to determine whether the Church, within its existing structures, laws and teachings, would be able to be “child safe,” or whether there was something intrinsic or inherent in the Church which would make this impossible.
I want to be very clear in response to this. If there was something inherent in the Church, essential to its identity yet which would make it impossible for it to also be “child safe,” then it would not be the Church.
This would be an absolute contradiction that the Church established by Christ could somehow be a place of safety for God’s little ones, including children and the vulnerable.
If we think that there are aspects of the Catholic faith which need to be rejected in order to make the Church safe for children, then we have it all wrong, because there should be no safer place for children (or anyone) than among Catholics who are living out their Gospel faith.
I think that what needs to happen, instead, is that we need to identify those things within the Church that are not of God, and to seek to purify them so that we are better able to live up to the true identity of the Church as the Body of Christ.
And we do that, first and foremost, not by pointing the finger at our leaders and asking them to change, but by looking at our own lives and what requires purification within ourselves.
That’s why it is a sign of God’s providence that, at the close of the Royal Commission’s hearings into the Catholic Church, we are entering straight into the season of Lent, which is a time of personal and communal purification and conversion.
It could have seemed nonsensical to wrap up the hearings and go straight into feasting and celebration, or even into ordinary time. Instead, we end this public confession with a period of penance, which is both important and just.
And just as importantly, we do not stay in a perpetual Lent, but move forward towards the Resurrection; a reminder that there is hope after the dark night, because Good Friday is always followed by Easter Sunday.