Damage Control

31 May 2013

In January the Governor-General established a royal commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. According to the commission website, the six-person team chaired by Justice Peter McClellan AM, has the power to investigate ‘any private, public or non-government organisation that is, or was in the past, involved with children’. In a media conference in November, Catholic Cardinal George Pell welcomed the commission, although many in the Catholic community felt that it was too late.Following revelations that the Church leadership may have knowingly moved abusers from parish to parish, the commission will have broad implications for the world’s largest organised religion and its one billion followers.

Father Bob Maguire is one of Melbourne’s most well known Catholic priests and has spoken about the history of Australian Catholicism and the reasons for its highly defensive response to sex abuse. In the early years of Australia’s European settlement, Australia was governed by a Protestant establishment acting on behalf of the British Empire. According to Father Bob, the institutional Church adopted a fortress mentality in Australia in response to the corrupting society around it. The Church set up institutions that mirrored those of the secular state (hospitals, schools, universities, orphanages). “It was a sealed society with its own rules and regulations,” Father Bob says. This seems to be evident in the Church’s self-protective response to child sex abuse.

Father Bob explains how this “us-versus-them” mentality led church leaders to go into damage control over instances of child sexual abuse, avoiding rather than tackling the issue head-on. It was this attitude that led Cardinal Pell to claim only “moral authority” in Australia, refusing to take responsibility for his role of overseeing church affairs in Oceania. The Church’s appalling response to child sexual abuse reflects the inadequacy of its top-down structure. The way forward, according to Father Bob, is sweeping institutional reform based on Vatican Council II. Greater autonomy for parishes, decentralisation of Vatican power and a greater role for women and lay people will open up the Church and make it more transparent.

Nick McNally, a spokesperson for sexual abuse support group Broken Rites, agrees that institutional and legislative reform is key to addressing the Church’s record of sex abuse. The Catholic Church, whose assets are held in a property trust, is not a legal entity in Australia and as such cannot be sued. McNally hopes that changes to legislation require the Church to take legal responsibility and pay reparations to victims. Another factor contributing to the Church’s inadequate response to sex abuse is its emphasis on canon law, which religious institutions prioritise their internal rules over Commonwealth and state law. For instance, priests hearing confession are not required to report crimes to the police—based on the concept of priest-penitent privilege where everything said during confession is treated confidentially. This allowed offending priests to confess, with no formal structure to prevent future instances of abuse.

Research by Dr Thomas Plante, a clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford School of Medicine, suggests that Catholic priests are no more likely to commit abuse than others. Dr Plante suggests that four percent of priests have committed child sexual abuse in the last half-century, a number consistent with other Christian clergy. The problem, according to Dr Plante, is the Catholic Church’s response to the abuse that has occurred.

Other commentators argue that the Catholic Church is one of the worst perpetrators of abuse. In The Saturday Age in March the paper’s Religion Editor Barney Zwartz said that Catholic priests offend at six times the rates of all the other Christian churches put together. The lack of consistent information available complicates the issue. It is likely the commission will clarify the extent of institutional abuse in Australia.

What can we expect from the royal commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse? McNally and Broken Rites are expecting prosecutions and hopefully, justice for victims. Progressive Catholics like Father Bob are hoping for institutional reform of the Catholic Church and repentance for wrongdoing.

Emeritus Professor Freda Briggs, an advisor to the Victorian Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations, says that the findings of the royal commission will be overwhelming. They will complement the findings of various other reports such as the Mullighan Inquiry in South Australia and the royal commission in NSW. The $22 million royal commission expects to receive over 5,000 submissions. “It’s the criminal justice system, the child protection system and the Family Court,” Professer Briggs says of the groups that have failed in dealing with abuse.

The effectiveness of the commission depends on politicians’ willingness to follow up the recommendations and make appropriate legislative changes. Royal commissions are important tools in raising awareness and investigating issues, but they must be accompanied by the drafting and passage of new laws. Community education will also be important. Professor Briggs hopes the commission will serve as a useful resource to train those who work with children and to prevent future cases of abuse.

In the aftermath of the commission we can expect that the public will lose faith in some of our trusted institutions. The Catholic Church, due in part to its sheer size and sphere of influence, will suffer a crisis of legitimacy for generations. If Ireland’s 2009 Ryan Report is anything to go by, the Church will face unprecedented scrutiny and public outrage. With 87 percent of Ireland’s population describing itself as Catholic, the traditional bastion of Catholicism has one of the fastest declining church attendance rates in the world. The findings of the 2009 Ryan Report, described as the “stuff of nightmares” (according to Madeline Bunting in The Guardian), permanently changed Ireland’s relationship with the Catholic Church.

Child sex abuse by Catholic clergy represents a gross betrayal of trust, when priests are expected to be spiritual mentors and community leaders. The royal commission will investigate all cases of institutional abuse, for it is a complex and wide-reaching issue. But the beleaguered Catholic Church, an already archaic and reactionary institution, will struggle to survive.

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