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Best of 2013: The unknown unknowns of the sexual abuse royal commission


An old adage has it that governments only agree to hold an inquiry when they know what it will find. Yet that has not always been true of royal commissions, and it is certainly not true of the royal commission into the sexual abuse of children in institutions, whose members and terms of reference the Gillard Government announced last week.

At this stage all that can be predicted with any confidence is that the task of Justice Peter McClelland and his fellow commissioners will be long and expensive, and that the evidence they will gather is likely to shame profoundly many of the institutions that come under their scrutiny.

That the commission will cost many millions of dollars and may need to continue well beyond the three years initially allotted for it can be seen as obstacles only by those who think that a desire for quick fixes outweighs the obligation to expose fundamental injustice and acknowledge longstanding grievances.

The nearest equivalent to this Australian inquiry is the Ryan commission in Ireland, which submitted its final report nearly ten years after it began hearings. If that is what it takes here, too, so be it.

The commission's terms of reference are properly broad, allowing it to investigate allegations of the sexual abuse of children in all types of institutions, public and private.

Such abuse has never been restricted to agencies of the Catholic Church. It can hardly be denied, however, that the chief impetus for the creation of this royal commission has been the appalling record of concealment of abuse in Catholic institutions, and of the protection of perpetrators by bishops and major superiors. If that record did not exist, the royal commission would not exist.

And Catholics — especially bishops and major superiors — cannot evade this fact by complaining, as they sometimes do, about malicious reporting by hostile secular media. If the abuses had not occurred, the reports could not have been written.

Worst of all, the abuse and concealment have evidently continued long after the church adopted protocols intended to redress the grievances of those who have been abused, and to prevent further abuse.

That is the considered judgment of Professor Patrick Parkinson, of the University of Sydney's law school, who twice reviewed the Towards Healing protocols for the hierarchy. He has since ended that relationship, because he says the protocols have been undermined.

The police submission to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into child abuse and media interviews by Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox of the NSW police also asserted that church authorities have frequently stalled investigations of the sexual abuse of children.

These assertions are not rabid allegations by anticlerical, muckraking journalists; they are expressions of frustration and disgust by ordinary cops who have been prevented from doing their job.

Too many bishops and major superiors have failed to act in good faith in the matter of clerical sexual abuse, and in this respect the Catholic Church in Australia has replicated a pattern familiar overseas. Whatever else the royal commission may reveal, we already know there is an entrenched culture of concealment within the church, and public awareness of this culture is shredding the Church's credibility.

That is why the best response the official Church in Australia has yet made to the child abuse crisis, the creation of the lay Truth, Justice and Healing Council, has been greeted with undeserved but predictable cynicism. It is a step that should have been taken ten years ago, and now it has ten years of others' dishonesty and evasion to live down.

The question that the royal commission cannot answer, but which we must answer for ourselves, is why sexual abuse has been so prevalent in Catholic institutions. A facile, often-heard answer is that it is a consequence of clerical celibacy.

This is not true is the sense that is usually intended: the issue is not sexual frustration, for celibacy does not necessarily make a man a molester any more than marriage necessarily makes a man a rapist. But there is a deeper sense in which mandatory celibacy is indeed at the heart of the matter.

The culture of concealment arises because the institutional church's reliance on what may be called the mystique of the priesthood: on the appearance of the priest (and by extension, a vowed religious, too) as someone special, a man set apart.

In most places and at most times, it has been through manipulating that mystique, rather than by citing official pronouncements, that the church has sought to wield practical authority. How can it not threaten a clericalist church, then, when the mystique is revealed to be a sham?

Ray Cassin headshotRay Cassin is a freelance writer and editor who is based in Melbourne. He was founding editor of Australian Catholics in the 1990s. This article was originally published on 13 January 2013.

Topic tags: Ray Cassin, Royal Commission, clergy sex abuse, Catholic Church sex abuse crisis



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Ray Cassin reminds us of the unintended consequences of the RC. With regret I take issue with Frank Brennan SJ “Priest Lashes police ‘bunkum’” Frank is one of the few Catholic clerics I respect. John Ferguson The Austraian’s Victorian Political Reporter quotes on 7 January page 3 from Eureka St 25 November 2013 where we exchanged views. In Jesuit fashion Brennan seeks to deny, divide and blame others and lessen church culpability. I share his view that the Victorian Police were derelict in failing to charge bishops for withholding criminal evidence and laying charges for harboring criminal priests. Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart, Peter O’Callaghan the bishops ‘independent’ commissioner and now Frank Brennan argue they all cooperated with the police in setting up ‘appropriate’ protocols. In my testimony to the Victoria’s Parliament Inquiry and to the Royal Commissions I quote 37 innocent victim survivors of priest sexual abuse and not a single one has publically spoken in favor of Towards Healing or the Melbourne Response. Not one acknowledges the church urged them to go to the police. All are appalled by their treatment by the church processes and report bruising experiences. Chrissi Foster’s book Hell on the way to Heaven details her re-abuse by the Archbishops and Vicar Generals of Melbourne handling Kevin O’Donnell matters in the Sacred Heart Parish. Brennan accuses the police of a media campaign just as the bishops blamed the media for dredging up the very issue of priestly sex abuse of minors for years until the Victorian Parliamentary Committee and the Royal Commission. The RC has heard terrible admissions from Bishops Peter Connors, John Gerry and Mark Coleridge. I was unaware of any police media campaign. But I have the Vicar General of Melbourne Greg Bennett’s letter to all parishes accusing the Victorian Committee of receiving perjury as evidence. The church now admits it was caught like rabbits in headlights and as Frank’s Eureka Street article is titled for the church there is ‘no copping out of the abuse blame’

MichaelParer | 13 January 2014  


Peter Watson,Obl.OSB | 13 January 2014  

You hold peter fox on a high pedestal. But yet.. http://www.theherald.com.au/story/1794829/police-brand-peter-fox-a-liar-update/ He isn't even trusted by his own colleagues. as for vic- the police media campaign http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/priest-lashes-police-bunkum/story-fn59niix-1226796146406 "The documents showed police praised the response when it was set up in 1996, and police had failed to deliver in 2011 on a promised protocol to ensure improvements to the reporting system." It seems both sides are to blame, in many cases, bishops for covering up, police for being complacent. I eagerly await the results of the Royal Commission, which will sort through all the riff-raff from both sides and come up with the truth. No accusations of trial by media, no counter-accusations of witnesses being liars or money diggers, no one beating the box saying how they fought pedophilia all the way (just to get attention). We will end up with just the truth, just the way it should be.

Nigel | 14 January 2014  

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