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The Royal Commission’s Catholic wrap up may be a painful experience

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Photo: Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

On 6 February, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse will commence Case Study 50, otherwise known as the “Catholic wrap up.”

Scheduled to run for three weeks, the hearing is intended to look at factors which might have contributed to the abuse crisis in the Church, and to our response to the crisis.

The three weeks which is allocated to the Church is the same amount of time which has been allocated to “wrap up” all other institutions, government and non-government, combined.

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This series of wrap up hearings will complete around four years of public hearings for the Royal Commission, and it will be the last major news we will hear of the Commission until it releases its final report, which is due to Parliament on 15 December this year.

While we don’t know exactly what will be covered in the three weeks of hearings, we have a fair idea of some of the issues which are primed for discussion.

It is likely that the hearings will open with a breakdown of the statistics regarding abuse in Catholic institutions.

Official numbers haven’t been released yet but, if the speeches from Commission Chair Justice Peter McClellan are any indication, we will probably hear that around 40 per cent of all complaints received by the Commission relate to Catholic institutions.

Given this dramatically high figure, the Commission will then consider whether there is anything unique to the Catholic Church which contributed to the occurrence of abuse.

Some of the topics which will be raised include the culture of the Church generally, its governance, including Canon Law, the role of the Vatican and the Bishops, its doctrine and practices, including the Sacrament of Confession and discipline of mandatory celibacy, and the selection and formation of candidates for the Priesthood.

There’s no point in mincing our words, it will be an unprecedented public shaming of the Church and much of it will be well-deserved.

The hearings will likely be well-publicised, and the issues raised will be widely discussed, because everyone has an opinion on what’s wrong with the Catholic Church (and how to fix it!)

So, how does a Catholic respond in these times?

I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all response, but I do think that there is nothing wrong with saying that the abuse is abhorrent, and that now – perhaps more than ever – the Church needs good people to remain within it to ensure the factors which allowed the initial abuse to occur and then be subsequently covered up never, ever happen again.

I also think it is crucial to ensure that we have proper information. The Commission will likely be the subject of conversation in the office and around the dinner table, and so it will be important that we are equipped with more than what we have read in the newspaper.

If the coverage of the Royal Commission to date is anything to go by, the media will not so much report the substance of the Commission’s proceedings, but rather the most sensational (and sensationalised) extracts from the 60-plus hours of testimony. There is almost no chance the coverage will be either accurate or fair.

In order to assist with this, the Catholic Talk column will run daily on the Catholic Weekly website throughout the course of the hearings.

Each day, I hope to provide you with a brief summary of the day’s proceedings, and also comment on (and if necessary, clarify) anything which is making the news each day.

The rolling coverage will be a bit of an experiment; because none of us know what exactly will be raised during the hearings, we cannot anticipate what exact form our coverage will take.

But I think it is important that we provide a forum to discuss these issues from a Catholic perspective.

It is an important time for the Church, and the results of this Royal Commission will, I think, be something the Church looks back to as a reference point in years to come.

We have a responsibility to ensure that we accurately record the happenings of the Commission, so that in the future, we can learn from the Commission’s important work. If we don’t do it, then I’m not sure anyone else will.

These next few weeks will be difficult for a number of reasons. The evidence will be hard to listen to. As a Church, we will be required to face and admit our failings and resolve to do better, but to not be so discouraged that we simply wave a white flag of surrender.

There may be times when we will need respectfully but firmly to declare that there are some aspects of the Church over which the Royal Commission and indeed, any state authority, has no jurisdiction (like the Sacrament of Confession.)

Because at times, this will feel like we are defending the indefensible, it will also be a difficult task, but still an important one.

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