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The healing God of the Royal Commission


The Commissioners: (left to right) Mr Bob Atkinson AO APM, Professor Helen Milroy, Justice Peter McClellan AM (Chair), Justice Jennifer Coate, Mr Robert Fitzgerald AM and Mr Andrew Murray.The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has begun, with its first sitting held in Melbourne last week. Expectations are high; relief runs deep. Both commissioners and victims will be treading a harrowing path together in the coming months and years. It is bound to be a national catharsis.

The six commissioners expect to receive more than 5000 submissions. Orders have already been served on the Catholic Church, its insurer, the Salvation Army and the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions. The Commission foresees that it will miss the 2015 deadline for a full report, due to the monumental scope.

Though it will not be prosecuting criminal cases, it has established links with state and territory police. There is also a focus on policy corrections for institutions which are found to have failed in their duty of care. The prosecutorial and legal outcomes from the commission will be significant. But other wounds bear considering.

The Catholic Church is placed uniquely among institutions under scrutiny. The trust that laypeople hold in priests and other vowed religious is not the same trust held in teachers, doctors and coaches. It is sourced from the stories that feed their faith.

The shepherd, in particular, is an abiding image of God. 'The Lord is my shepherd,' goes one of the more famous biblical passages shared by Jews and Christians. 'Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me.'

The words provide a mirror for Jesus, who casts himself as the good shepherd, who would leave 99 of his flock to look for the one that is lost, who would lay down his life for them all. When his disciple Peter asserts his love, Jesus tells him to feed the lambs and sheep, to look after them. This is the Peter to whom Catholic priests, religious brothers and sisters, bishops and popes trace back their authority and ministry.

This is the context in which the depth of betrayal must be understood, as the Royal Commission progresses. These aren't merely images and stories; they are the bases of a Christian understanding of a loving God. It flavours public expectations of his earthly envoys. Yet no one seemed to be at the gate when the wolves came.

There is no overstating the distress that this has caused the faithful. The hurt and anger can be overwhelming. It is impossible to reconcile with the scale and pattern of cruelty. The undeserved stain on the many religious whom I know to be uncommonly decent is also enraging.

The Royal Commission is thus received as a purgative for a particular toxicity that has coursed through our institutions for too long. Rather than an exercise in self-flagellation, it is an opportunity to walk in solidarity with those who have been hurt. It is cause for hope.

To its credit, the Australian Catholic Church has released victims from confidentiality agreements, so they may add their story to those that will be gathered by the commissioners. The fact that such confidentiality was ever a feature of church process reflects poorly on officials. It is a business of shadows, which look set to be dispelled.

As head commissioner Justice Peter McLellan puts it, part of their task involves bearing witness. It is a completely apt approach for any royal commission, but it holds special resonance in the Christian tradition.

To bear witness is to listen closely and watch, to allow room for unravelling. It is to value a person's story and accept that suffering is its own truth. It is to expose yourself. It is to tread with care on holy ground.

This means keeping from inserting yourself into the scene, respecting the space that has been given over to victims. It may be difficult for some in our community to restrain themselves in the coming months. But they must. We must also take care of our own safety, as there are limits to the number of personal accounts we can hear or read in one day. It will be an arduous process, with public hearings unlikely to commence before October.

But Catholics must stand fast; so must the wider community. That is also what witnessing means: to abide. We do this so we may better tell the stories. For the stories to come aren't just the stories of victims; they are the story of the Catholic Church and the community within which it sits. Their healing will be our healing. 

Fatima Measham headshotFatima Measham is a Melbourne-based social commentator, and tweeter. Pictured: The Commissioners — Bob Atkinson, Professor Helen Milroy, Justice Peter McClellan (Chair), Justice Jennifer Coate, Robert Fitzgerald and Andrew Murray. 

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Royal Commission, clergy sex abuse



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Existing comments

Have you read my book Unholy Silence that sparked the Royal Commission? If you have any doubt what caused the media interest and the drip feed of sexual abuse allegations against the Catholic Church's trial by media, read the story.. I am sure you will not be able to put it down..

Kevin Lee | 11 April 2013  

Thank you Fatima for telling so well of the shepherd whom we priests trace our Jesus ministry and who were not at the gate when the wolves came. This is highlighted so tragically in Chrissi Fosters Hell on the way to Heaven. Healing and Restorative justice and parish and community care are the roles for all in the hopefully enlightening times ahead. Let the focus be on the innocent victim survivors who are still enduring a lifetime of agony too long neglected by our episcopal shepherds and many parish priests. In good Aussie parlance let the chips fall where they may Force Michael Parer

Michael Parer | 11 April 2013  

Actually, Fatima, I hope priests (Catholic; Anglican; Orthodox; Oriental Orthodox) are not held in more respect than others such as teachers; doctors etc. who act in loco parentis. That would, to me, seem a sign of the bad old days and a hangover from the Irish past of Catholicism in this country where a priest was seen very similarly to the way simple Indian peasants see their Brahmin priests. This is another relationship which is open to exploitation. There are clergy I respect - Anglican & Catholic due to my own religious experience - who I respect because they, as it were, embody Christ. This is not something which comes automatically at ordination but the fruit of Grace born from humility and service. I have seen clergy, such as the former Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane and Governor-General of Australia, brought low and forced to resign from the latter office due to a combination of excessive hubris and a total inability to understand why a priest (I think possibly a friend/former friend/possible colleague of his) could violate his trust as a mature, married warden of a teenage hostel of a teenage girl 20 years or so younger than him. From memory Hollingworth seemed to imply (on Australian Story on ABC TV) that the girl had led the cleric on! This is not solely a Catholic problem. There are, of course, clergy who do embody Christ and take the part of the victim. One Catholic cleric in Wollongong who did so, I believe, was so ostracized and victimized by his colleagues that he committed suicide. I do not believe this would happen in all dioceses but it is a warning sign and precautions do need to be taken. I think this whole paedophilia thing is an enormous wakeup call to all Australians. The implications go across to boarding schools; Child Welfare departments etc. I applaud clergy like Andrew Hamilton who speak out clearly and fearlessly about this matter. He is someone I admire because of what he does. Would there were more like him! Fortunately, I have known clerics like him. They keep the organisation honest.

Edward F | 11 April 2013  

Your criticism of confidentiality agreements is overstated and might be based on an erroneous assumption. Agreements made under the Melbourne Response and Towards Healing have not included confidentiality restrictions since at least 1996 (in the case of the former) or 2000 (in the case of the latter). Some claims settled outside those processes might contain such agreements but the Church does not seek to enforce them. Again, criticism of the Church without knowing the facts or, at least, without portraying them accurately and fairly...

Anna | 11 April 2013  

It is far from a justification, but in past years it was not unusual for organisations to hide reprehensible matters that would harm their reputations. The current trend to greater openness is very welcome. In this climate, another significant matter involving the Catholic Church over the years should also be publicly acknowledged - and apologies made to the victims. The activities of the secret political organisation later called the National Civic Council were not only promoted within the Church but those who disagreed with its methods were vilified, even criticised by name from the pulpit at Sunday Mass. Recent revelations about the activities of 'the Movement', as it was once called, have confirmed that criticisms of the organisation were well justified. It is now late but not too late for apologies to be made to victims.

Bob Corcoran | 11 April 2013  

Surely Fatima is correct Edward ,in suggesting our trust for those who were expected to be 'Alter Christis',other Christs ,is more serious than that afforded the other special servers of society . .The Wollongong martyr you mention has his equal in Bishop Bill M who pledged his unfailing support for victims & paid the price under Ratzinger justice . Like many I have enormous trust in Pope Francis to purge the true deviants as well as reverce the injustice by re-instating Bishop Bill to his much proven role as a true Shepard .

john kersh | 11 April 2013  

"Have you read my book Unholy Silence that sparked the Royal Commission?" asks Kevin Lee. CLAN (10,000 postcards to the Prime Minister), Broken Rites, SNAP, and a whole lot of other organisations around Australia have been lobbying for the Royal Commission long before "Unholy Silence" appeared. Not to mention whistle-blowing police and ongoing media reports over the years. Nor the many other books on the topic. It was also a recommendation of the Senate Report "Forgotten Australians" way back in 2004. I liked Fatima Measham's comment: "This means keeping from inserting yourself into the scene, respecting the space that has been given over to victims. It may be difficult for some in our community to restrain themselves in the coming months."

Frank Golding | 11 April 2013  

Let's be very clear about the Church's role in the clerical sexual abuse scandal. The Church not only failed to focus on the terrible damage being done to children but engaged in a cover-up protecting many abusers and enabling them to continue their abuse in new fields. The Melbourne Response and Towards Healing are simply processes to deal with complaints. The Church's apology has been limited to the actions of the abusers and has not addressed its disgraceful cover-up, nor has the Church addressed the inadequacies of its governance structures and practices that supported the cover-up and the shocking decisions of some bishops. Catholics for Renewal has documented these inadequacies in its submission and presentation to the Victorian Parliamentary Committee ( http://www.catholicsforrenewal.org/documents.htm ) and has yet to see any attempt by Church authorities to address these real issues of the Church’s governance dysfunctions.

Peter Johnstone | 11 April 2013  

Thank you Fatima for your comments and urging restraint and faith in the Royal Commission as it progresses. Indeed, common-sense is necessary if truths are to be uncovered and rehabilitation of victims is to begin. May I add one additional ingredient? The importance of our prayers for the success of the Commission's findings and recommendations. We need to rediscover the importance of prayer in our life.

Roy Fanthome | 12 April 2013  

Exactly Peter Johnstone. It's about shepherds protecting and allowing the wolves to operate rather than protecting the sheep - especially the lambs: hence turning what should have been untimately thesafest environments of trust into horribly unsafe environments for the most vulnerable. I can't stop shuddering when I think of how many lives have been mortally wounded so far.

POD | 12 April 2013  

I see no problem, as Edward F does, if priests were held ‘in more respect that others such as teachers, doctors, etc who act in loco parentis’. The greater respect that may be given to priests is clearly by virtue of their ordained ministry but I don’t see that that extra respect gives rise to “another relationship which is open to exploitation.” Only, in those cases, the betrayal of trust seems worse than with others.

osmund | 12 April 2013  

Thank you Fatima for a well measured article. I note many comments incorporating quaint old statements such as 'the shepherds were not protecting the sheep, but instead were allowing the wolves to operate.' In reality, and continuing in these terms; the shepherds, though not most, were in fact the wolves! which is worse.

John Whitehead | 12 April 2013  

John Kersh, you say: "Surely Fatima is correct Edward ,in suggesting our trust for those who were expected to be 'Alter Christus',other Christs ,is more serious than that afforded the other special servers of society". With respect, I disagree. I think - taken to extremes - this approach leads to clericalism, which is not Christian and opens the door to all sorts of potential abuse and exploitation. I would be honest with you on this. The only clerical paedophile I knew - not a friend but inadvertently through a church I attended - was one of those unfortunates who "had to be Father" - a dangerous attitude which should have been picked up by the (Anglican) bishop who ordained him. Clericalism is at least as alive in Anglican Australia as amongst Catholics. In fact, in Anglo-Catholic Queensland, I have found it far worse. Perhaps it is a subconscious carryover from the Church's English origins where the parson was a big man in the village. It was the same with many (not all) Irish and Irish-Australian secular clergy till well into the 1960s here. Perhaps a hangover from Ireland. Jesus was, of course, nothing like this. He emptied himself of status. I think we should see clerics as primarily people given a sacred trust. It's the trust, not the person, that is sacred. Ultimately it is only God who is sacred and who sanctifies everything. Without Him the world would indeed be what the materialists believe and say it is. Cardinal Christoph Schonborn was another person who, like Bishop Bill Morris of Toowoomba, spoke out against protection of clerical paedophiles. He appears to have suffered no ill effects.

Edward F | 12 April 2013  

Frank Golding disputes my claim to have launched the Royal Commission without even reading my book "Unholy Silence" in which I detail the chronology of events that show the Royal Commission Camel was given its last straw. There was a concerted effort by many before my story was told and Det Peter Fox confirmed what I was saying happens. One swallow does not make a summer, so one abuse case or many does not suffice for a Commission but when a priest marries in secret as a protest to prove the celibacy charade cloaking abuse, people in high places sit up and listen.

Father Kevin Lee | 27 April 2013  

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