Gail Furness, senior counsel assisting the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, speaks at a hearing in Sydney Feb. 6. CNS photo/AAP handout via EPA

Australian Church, commission: how to keep sex abuse from recurring?

  • February 9, 2017

SYDNEY – As an Australian government commission heard testimony on how the Catholic Church responded to decades of child abuse in its institutions, church leaders were asking the same questions as the government: How could this have happened? How can we keep it from happening again?

By Feb. 9, after nearly a week of testimony from church leaders, psychologists and experts, members of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse had heard about how church structures contributed to the problem. They discussed broad issues: if celibacy and emotional isolation might be causes of abuse; what was or was not covered by the seal of confession; the relationship between canon law and civil law.

And there were questions – many with no right answers. Should a priest who has abused be laicized? Because if he is laicized, the church has no control over his actions and cannot ensure he will not be kept from a position where he can abuse again. Would incorporating as a legal entity offer a degree of transparency not currently available in many church institutions? Would a greater role for laity – especially women – change the way the church governs?

Six officials – two judges, a government productivity commissioner, a psychiatrist, a former senator and a former police commissioner – were concluding more than three years of inquiry into the institutional abuse. They heard that between 1950 and 2010, 7.9 percent of diocesan priests and 5.7 percent of religious order priests had allegations made against them, making a total of 7 percent of priests overall. The statistics were for allegations, not proven cases.

"Both those within the Catholic Church and those outside it are asking how this revolting and insidious evil could have been so prevalent, so long unacknowledged, and so badly handled," said Archbishop Timothy Costelloe of Perth.

"Each incidence of sexual abuse by a priest represents a chilling and destructive betrayal of everything the Catholic Church purports to stand for," he said in a statement published Feb. 9. "Beyond the almost unimaginable suffering of the victims and survivours of this abuse, the circle of suffering widens out to include their families, their friends, and the wider community."

Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher, who was expected to appear before the commission during the three weeks of proceedings, called revelations from the first day of hearings "harrowing" and said he "personally felt shaken and humiliated by this information."

"The church is sorry and I am sorry for past failures that left so many so damaged," the archbishop said in a statement Feb. 6, at the end of the first day. "I know that many of our priests, religious and lay faithful feel the same: As Catholics, we hang our heads in shame."

Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, acknowledged that the hearings could be distressing to many who followed the proceedings.

"I am sorry for the damage that has been done to the lives of victims of sexual abuse. As Pope Francis said recently, 'It is a sin that shames us,'" he said.

Several Australian bishops were among those who were to testify at the hearings, seen as a wrapup of the inquiry into the Catholic Church. They were expected to explain the procedures and safeguards the church has put into place to help protect children from abuse, including discussion of the church's Parish Safeguarding Project.

The people "have an absolute right to demand that the church confront its appalling record in relation to the care and well-being of the young," said Archbishop Costelloe.

"You have a right to expect that we will do everything we can to continue to support those who have been abused, in the way that they need that support. You have a right to insist that we show, not by words but by concrete and effective actions, that we are absolutely committed to doing everything we can to make every Catholic community, agency, and activity, a place of security and safety for the young," he said in his letter.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane told commissioners Feb. 8 that he was the bishops' chair of a 2020 plenary council in Australia.

"It is a decision-making body and we are going to have to make – when I say 'we,' I mean all of us – big and important decisions about the future and about the kind of thing or the issue that you raise: What are the structures and strategies that we are going to require now and into the future to bring about cultural change? This is where I have to say we do look to the Royal Commission for help" for suggestions of structures and strategies, he said.

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