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Compassion and justice after abuse apology



Tomorrow in our national parliament, the Prime Minister will offer an apology to the victims of child sexual abuse. Many survivors will be here in Canberra. Some will be here at taxpayer expense having been successful in a ballot to attend. Others will come under their own steam hoping to get into the parliamentary gallery or the great hall. We know that many of these victims were the subject of abuse in our own church.

Scott Morrison delivers national apology to survivors of sexual abuseThe royal commission is over, but there is still a long way for us to travel so that we might stand together in solidarity committed to justice, truth and healing for all, for the living and for the dead. We are unlikely as a Church or as a society to get this right for quite some years to come.

Unlike the apology to the stolen generations or the apology for forced adoptions, this apology will be delivered in the hope that those from institutions which have done wrong stay away or at least not be publicly identifiable. The government website states:

'The national apology is a day for survivors, families and supporters. Community consultations have made it clear that representatives from institutions in official attire risk traumatising survivors. Accordingly, institutions will not be represented at the national apology in Canberra.

'Members of institutions who wish to attend apology events in their personal capacity as a survivor, or as a support person to a survivor, are respectfully asked to not wear a uniform or any clothing that identifies their institution.'

So let's continue to feel shame as members of the Church and let's recommit to justice, truth and healing. As we look at our church structures and the past cover ups or downplaying of abuse that occurred, let's take to heart Jesus' words in today's gospel (Mark chapter 10 verses 35-45):

'You know that those who are recognised as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.'


"The church cannot undo all of the harm done in the past, but it has the responsibility to do all that is within its power to create an environment in which people will treat other people with respect, dignity and justice." — Maree Marsh


We are fortunate that our bishops finally agreed to release the reports of our Truth Justice and Healing Council. One of those reports contained personal testimonies by members of the Council. This evening, I would like to quote from just four of those testimonies. I will not quote any bishop. I will not quote any man. Let me just quote from four of the women on the council.

Elizabeth Proust, Deputy Chair of the Council and Chairman of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, said:

'It is clear from the royal commission's findings that the dysfunctional governance of the Church aggravated the harm done by sexual abuse. The need for reform in this area is long overdue and the delay and obfuscation in responding to the royal commission on this topic, and on many others, will only worsen the alienation felt by the people of the Church, and continue to make the Church an irrelevance in our society.'

Maria Harries, who is a professor of social work and the chair of my board at Catholic Social Services Australia, said:

'I still need to be convinced that the structures of the church implicated in their permitting of such abuse and the protection of perpetrators will really reform itself. Change is obligatory, and it is differentially confronting and frightening for various elements of our church. The recognition of the problems we face as a church is a good start to finding solutions.'

Marian Sullivan, a child psychiatrist, said:

'The royal commission has challenged many parts of Australian society and its institutions. The Catholic Church has been scrutinised extensively and critiqued harshly. As a member of the Council I have moved from a disposition of disappointment with the Church to one of satisfaction that the Church represented by the Council has unflinchingly faced the shame of its past behaviour and any inadequacies of redress. Although not widely acknowledged, the cooperation that the Council gave to the royal commission has been exemplary and is proof of our resolve.'

Maree Marsh, a Brigidine Sister and psychologist, said:

'The church cannot undo all of the harm done in the past, but it has the responsibility to do all that is within its power to create an environment in which people will treat other people with respect, dignity and justice. The healing that is necessary involves a long process and will take courage, compassion, openness and patience. Above all it will take faith — faith in one another and faith that God is with us in this journey.'

This evening whether victim, relative, bystander, or church official we can all identify with the suffering servant in Isaiah (Isaiah chapter 53 verses10-11):

'The Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity. If he gives his life as an offering for sin, he shall see his descendants in a long life, and the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him.

'Because of his affliction he shall see the light in fullness of days; through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.'

May the Lord have mercy on us all. May the day come when church officials and victims will be comfortable in each other's presence in our Parliament even if not in our Church. But let's dare to pray that all might belong both in the galleries of our Parliament and in the pews of our Church seeing the light in fullness of days.



Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia. The above text is taken from is his homily for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Curtin.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, child sexual abuse, royal commission, national apology



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Existing comments

Yesterday, I watched from the gallery as the great hall in Parliament House was set up for the apology today. I gazed at the beautiful tapestry on the wall and reflected on this long journey for all those affected by child sexual abuse, particularly those from an institutional setting. The words from Isaiah chapter 53 about our messiah, His suffering and humility reveals to the church how we are to engage with this issue. Pax Vobiscum.

Pam | 21 October 2018  

Thanks for the fine and moving speeches by Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten this morning. Let's hope and pray that today's National Apology contributes to truth, justice and healing for all, those living and dead and those yet to come in our land.

Frank Brennan SJ | 21 October 2018  

The PM wept - and so too did Jesus. I wonder how many of those dignitaries in the Churches who protected the abusers also wept this morning.

john frawley | 21 October 2018  

Institutions that are closed to public scrutiny seem a breeding place for deviant people and their behaviours. Its like a magnet for predators and these places are wide ranging through out society. Its the institutions that we all have trusted for generations have now been exposed as corrupted and the destruction of people's trust in them, really is evidence of the collapse of western society.

Cameron RUSSELL | 22 October 2018  

Frank, My brother and I were boarders with the Sisters of Mercy at Galong N.S.W. from 1956 to 1961 and then a boarder with two of the Marist Brothers boarding schools in Sydney from 1962 to 1968 as our mother was a widow and had to work to keep a roof over our heads. We witnessed considerable cruelty in the form of sometimes vicious corporal punishment as well as instances of physical and mental abuse to some of our fellow students by both nuns and brothers. We will never forget those times. When my brother and I , now in our late 60's, meet for our fortnightly lunch together now over fifty years down the track , it is still a topic we reminisce about! I think our generation have been deeply affected by our experiences. When we would tell our mother about such incidents when at home for holidays, her response was always "Oh, you must have deserved it", even when we showed her the bruises on our fingers! Our fervent hope is that the Church and the various religious groups will not only acknowledge the wrongs of the past and apologise to those of us still living with those terrible memories, but they will go some way to righting the wrongs done in their name. Of course, most of the perpetrators are now deceased, no doubt having pleaded their cases with the Divine Judge. I agree Frank, yesterday was a moving experience. I was gratified to see that Julia Gillard was give the acknowledgement she justly deserved for starting the process. Still, we have a long way to travel.

Gavin O'Brien | 22 October 2018  

Fundamental change must start now if the Church is to regain credibility with society. The all male governance has proven itself to be totally at odds with Gospel values. The dreadful damage done to children would not have occurred if women had been included at high levels of governance. Ireland's Mary McAleese was correct when she said: "their exclusion from decision making roles has left the church flapping about awkwardly on one wing."

Trish Martin | 22 October 2018  

Never forget that it was Julia Gillard, not Howard nor Rudd nor Abbott, who set up this commission. Without Gillard, the atheist, this commission and all that it exposed would not have occurred. And she set it up in the face of all those dignitaries and God-botherers who said it wasn't necessary.

Ginger Meggs | 22 October 2018  

Let the clergy, priests, bishops and cardinals be the administrators of the Seven Sacraments, missionaries and teachers. And the Catholic Church 'governance' handed over to dedicated, professional, committed, lay women, religious women and young Catholic adults. 50 - 50 sounds just to me.

AO | 22 October 2018  

When state schools had mandatory reporting of child abuse,what was your Catholic school system doing to protect your own children.........

Anne Ramsay | 22 October 2018  

The type of maltreatment described by Gavin O’Brien is part of the reason that churches are now nearly empty. Nearly all of The church’s problems are self-inflicted,

Joe | 23 October 2018  

We need to recognise too, those yet to be recognised who were not included in the Terms of Reference of that Royal Commission, terms that chose not to recognise levels of vulnerability targeted but rather chose what is for many an arbitrary chronological age point, an age point btw that did and does not reflect how society was at their times of the abuse and did and does not take into account significant other factors resulting in their being targeted, factors other than a certain age. These people in their thousands remain largely unrecognised, unapologized to and unredressed in adequate if any proportion. The Saga continues.

Jennifer Herrick | 23 October 2018  

What a shame, Ginger, that Julia Gillard's atheistic virtue and compassion in establishing the commission did not extend to the establishment of an equally rigorous investigation into the fate of the unborn in this country.

John | 24 October 2018  

Thanks, Jennifer, for recalling our attention to those also who suffered abuse, from people authorised to care by the Catholic and other churches, but who did not come within the age range of this excellent Royal Commission. By restricting the focus of the Commission to the sexual abuse of children in institutional care, sexual violence towards people throughout their life cycle, perpetrated by some persons who represent religious and public institutions has not yet received scrutiny. The current spotlight on various kinds of violence toward men and women in aged care settings reminds us that the terms of reference of the Gospel's all embracing call to compassion have been set by God and not institutions and "the industry". Christopher Fry said in A Sleep of Prisoners, "The human heart can go the lengths of God." Now is the time for churches, governments, NGOs, community groups and "People without Borders" to do that, to be of good heart and see our opportunities as God sees them.

alex nelson | 24 October 2018  

Thanks for responding to my comment Alex. Well put. The gospel term of reference is all embracing, not limiting.

Jennifer Herrick | 24 October 2018  

John chooses to diminish Julia Gillard's enormous contribution by criticizing her support of abortion. When our culture chooses to welcome all children, and support their mothers financially and socially, we will have no need to consider abortion. I have moved from being staunchly anti-abortion to understanding that for individuals it is often the lesser of two evils, and that the balance rests in the hands of all of us, but particularly judgmental men.

Beth | 24 October 2018  

Sorry John, virtue and compassion are neither theistic nor atheistic, they spring from a common humanity. The reason why the Commission - an inquisitorial process - was needed for the institutional abuse of children was that the institutions were not of themselves willing to own up to the magnitude of the abuse and subsequent systemic cover-up that they perpetrated. It was only through compulsion that the truth, or at least some of the truth, was wrung out of them.

Ginger Meggs | 25 October 2018  

The current leaders including the Jesuits are still not open about this issue. They refuse to publish the names of known perpetrators and will not correct the public record which would encourage other survivors to come forward. Therefore, they are part of the cover up and no amount of “confession” will absolve them of this. They talk of compassion but the survivors talk of justice. Tim

Tim | 25 October 2018  

Certainly, Ginger, virtues upheld by a believer and an atheist can be common, both in identification and practice (e.g., honesty, courage, etc.), and in our shared humanity. Perhaps it'd have been clearer had I used "atheistic" more directly in relation to Ms Gillard, whom you describe as such. There's obviously still a question, though, of where our "common humanity" springs from - the answer to which is where, I think, we differ.

John | 25 October 2018  

Beth. "...abortion is often the lesser of two evils..." What is the greater of the two evils you are comparing? The lesser of two evils in the management of unwanted pregnancy is safe contraception (if it is indeed an evil - I do not believe that it is!). When safe contraception is readily available in the modern world there could be no rational reason to conceive an unwanted child and abortion would rarely if ever be "necessary". The only figures available in Australia for the incidence of unwanted pregnancy following rape are to be found in the South Australian register of legalised abortions which indicates that such cases are less than 1/100. All other abortions are the result of irresponsible lack of contraception.

john frawley | 25 October 2018  

All forms of violence or abuse are a form of murder. They are the 'taking of something' that does not belong to you. Murder is the taking of the 'Life': physical, spiritual and emotional well being of the other. Not just the means by which one terminates the physical death of another. Stealing is also an adequate word... To those who think abortion is a lesser evil. What are the two evils you are comparing. When you say abortion is the lesser?..."Abortion wasn't about 'products of conception'... It was about children being killed in their mother's wombs." Norma Leah McCorvey Nelson. Do you know what women in ancient pagan Rome did to their unwanted (especially female) babies? Yes female babies. And why? (let me tell you incase you do not know). And how the Christians would seek them out rescue them and give them a home. Sin is slavery. Don't forget "they killed Christ the author of Life by putting Him on a cross, (Acts 3:15) and thousands of others". How is aborting a baby not 'the same' as killing someone by putting him on a cross? God is Love and Life. If you cut a Life short (again, Acts 3:15) you are killing God. Again. Do the maths, if the Truth doesn't speak to your heart. If you truly understood the depth of the meaning of how Christ died. You would not call an abortion a lesser evil. But Evil. Just as His death was. What is the answer? Look towards Mary, a jewish girl 'alive' during times of Roman tyranny. A young girl who simply said 'Yes'- to Life and Love. Mary a young girl who simply said 'Yes' to her God and her baby.

AO | 26 October 2018  

You’re correct John in that there are some questions on which we will inevitably and, probably, irretrievable differ, so let’s just accept what we can share - our common humanity. You regret that Gillard did not establish ‘an equally rigorous investigation into the fate of the unborn in this country’ but nor did Abbott nor Andrews nor Howard nor Joyce nor Rudd. What does that say about them, or your singling-out of Gillard's non-action for being 'a shame'?

Ginger Meggs | 26 October 2018  

Beth, adverse circumstances may indeed be difficult, but is there a lesser evil than the deliberate destruction of innocent human life?

John | 26 October 2018  

Murder: not just the means by which one terminates the physical 'life' of another.

AO | 28 October 2018  

Hi Fr Frank Analysing your comments over 2012 -2018 in regard the issues surrounding the Royal Commission and also some state trials of accused "church workers" within the Catholic Church has shown that your thinking on the issue has changed and developed. We need strong voices within all institutions to act with a thirst for justice and with compassion. I would really like to see Eureka Street become like the NCR in the US a solid voice for justice for survivors. To go down this path would require absolute transparency in regard to the cases of CSA and also physical abuse and neglect connected to Jesuit agencies. It would require a new beginning, one that shows that the Jesuit Order both in Australia and Internationally can become an outpost of compassion justice and transparency. In the Health and Integrity Conference held in August in Melbourne sponsored by the Franciscans a new dawn was seen and in a below post I have posted the communique developed . It is always a barometer of the range of opinion within the Catholic Church to read the comment stream under your posts. It is a fascinating current and historical record. "Survivors and Friends Foundation aims to provide support for victims and their families by providing advocacy, online peer to peer support, and with professional back up online support groups as well as peer to peer support of victims currently or in the future going through legal processes and or civil action or Redress applications. "

Survivors and Friends Foundation | 10 November 2018  

It's always fascinated me the way the Catholic Chuech so easily changes its mind to suit public opinion, but fails to fundamentally change its inherent structure. We still have yet to find why the Catholic Church leadership lied, decieved, legally abused, emotionall abused and verbally abused those who it committed crimes against. I'm afraid the platitudes are meaningless without reall action and without real and total commitment to redress by all Catholic institutions. Until then, their comments which sound so kind and caring are like the organisation itself which is a church devoid of empathy, ethics, morality and compassion. Money and greed still dominate this dysfunctional organisation.

James Luthy | 17 December 2018  

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