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Church congregations have role in healing abuse victims



On Monday (18 August), we are beginning Round 8 of the Royal Commission’s investigation into the Catholic Church’s handling of sexual abuse allegations. While some of these have passed without significant media attention, and in one case the Wollongong church came out looking not too bad, this upcoming round, like the Sydney based investigation into the John Ellis case, promises to be explosive in its content. 

We received a preview of the matters likely to be investigated in the ABC’s Four Corners on 11 August. The program aired material relating to the Melbourne Response established by then Archbishop Pell to be the Melbourne Archdiocese alternate response to the national protocols being developed at that time by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Towards Healing. The program dealt with a number of specific cases of abuse including the case of Chrissie and Anthony Foster, whose two daughters Emma and Katie were assaulted by serial abuser Fr Kevin O'Donnell.

Their case was one of the first to be processed by the Melbourne Response process and has already been subject to investigation by a Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other organisations. That inquiry involved some feisty, if not heated, exchanges between the parliamentarians and Cardinal Pell. His subsequent appearances at the Royal Commission on the John Ellis case were more circumspect. 

At the closure of the Commission investigation of that case the Cardinal was asked to make himself available for this coming round into its investigation into the Melbourne Response, to which he agreed he would if possible. So we can expect another probing process of question and answer with Cardinal Pell the star witness. Once again we will have the spectacle of a cardinal of the Church humbled before a secular authority. 

The Four Corners program also highlighted the prolonged suffering of a parish and school community at Doveton, Victoria, where it seems a number of paedophile priests were active over a period of decades. In one case, involving Fr Peter Searson, then Bishop Pell received a deputation from the local school making complaints against the priest. No action was taken to remove the priest from his position. In his evidence to the Victorian inquiry Cardinal Pell noted that he had spoken sternly to Fr Searson and told him to 'follow the protocols', though what protocols were being referred to was not made clear! 

While the program focussed on the inaction of the relevant Church authorities, I was somewhat aghast that at no time did it seem to occur to the teachers at the school to approach the local police concerning the abusive and criminal actions of the priest. This may have been prior to the era of mandatory reporting, but surely they would have known that the priest’s actions were criminal. Why then have recourse to a purely internal Church process, particularly when it proved so ineffective? Unfortunately the program did not explore this question. 

However, it did highlight for me that the problem of cover-up is not just one for the hierarchy, in particular the senior leaders of the Church. There is a 'co-dependency' issue here in that the laity look to the leadership to solve problems 'in-house', problems which really should be dealt with by civil authorities. Time and again the Royal Commission has heard Church leaders defend their actions by noting that victims did not want to go to the police, that they wanted the matter dealt with through internal Church processes. Even the laity, and at times the victims themselves, can be caught up in a culture which seeks to protect the reputation of the Church over and against the need to protect present and future victims. And when victims do seek to break through this conspiracy of silence, they are the ones who are ostracised by their communities. 

Undoubtedly the Royal Commission will propose countless policies and procedures, but these will not touch the heart of the issue. Similarly the recent announcement by the Truth, Justice and Healing Council proposing an independent redress scheme for survivors, while to be welcomed, does not address the depth of the problem. So long as the culture whereby both the hierarchy and the laity spontaneously seek to 'protect the church from scandal' as a first option, there will be no major change in the situation. 

We can see a more creative response in the recent actions by the Anglican Church in Canberra and Goulburn. A public apology to sexual abuse victims was either read out to congregations at Lamentation Sunday services, or a video of the apology delivered by the local bishop was played in each parish church. Congregations need to be brought into the process of finding a solution to our mess, to see that they too have a role to play in healing of and reparation to the victims. As a community we need liturgies of lamentation, of repentance, of reparation and healing if the church is to become a safe place for victims of abuse.

Neil OrmerodNeil Ormerod is Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University.

Topic tags: Neil Ormerod, sexual abuse, Cardinal Pell, Royal Commission, Melbourne Response, Truth, Justice and Heali



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Existing comments

There needs to be great caution in attributing culpability and/or blame for the crime of clerical sexual abuse, to the congregation. "Even the laity, and at times the victims themselves, can be caught up in a culture which seeks to protect the reputation of the Church" I find this notion, that we are all to blame for the sexual abusive behaviour of a priest, deeply disturbing - and in some ways a kind of abuse. My 80 year old mother was devastated by this accusation, that she was in fact also culpable for heinous sexual abuse crimes. Is it fair to try to spread the blame of an individual, upon the souls of the all the people (who in fact are wounded and devastated by that individual's behaviour?) I agree that our Parish communities need to be a place of healing and hope for abuse victims, but casting the blame unfairly, and illogically on the already wounded Parish communities, is not just unfair and unjust and counter-productive to the healing process.

Cath R. | 15 August 2014  

It is certainly true that the laity must play their part in accepting that victims / survivors are telling the truth and need their unequivocal christian support if it asked for. Unfortunately for many many victims, by the time they recognise the source of their problems and do come forward decades later, either to the Church authorities, and/or to the general public, they have long long left their parish community or moved far away from where it all occurred, and have ceased practising their faith even if they still hold to that faith privately. I wonder then how such services can link up to those people? I wonder too whether such services might make the laity feel good but not actually reach to the victims they are intended to assist?

Jennifer Herrick | 15 August 2014  

Institutions such as the Catholic Church have failed the victims of sexual abuse by their representatives , ordained or otherwise. But all members of those institutions are also failed, initially by the codes of silence and secrecy. And now by not seeking to listen to their members. The official church representatives seem to be in a hurry to get the bad news behind them and out of our sight. Whilst we all feel hurt by the neglect of victims , very few Bishops seem able to ask parishioners what they might be thinking or feeling about the handling of these matters. The Diocese of Broken Bay has taken a brave step in sponsoring a film that looks at one aspect of sex abuse by a priest. When will we be able to acknowledge that we are all victims of the mishandling of these cases, and the terrible silence that continues to this day? Institutions will pay the price for these crimes for a long time to come, both within their memberships and the wider community. This will impact on the charitable works , on fund raising , and most of all, on trust and respect.

Elizabeth Mulrennan | 16 August 2014  

You did not mention that in the4 Corners program 11/1/'14 a recording was aired made during a Melbourne Response Compensation Panel hearing where David Curtin Q,C was trying to get a victim not to show her Deed to a solicitor prior to signing...and then at the Royal Commission, also aired on the same program, he is shown denying that he NEVER asked victims not to have their Deeds perused by a solicitor prior to signing.

Robin Henderson | 16 August 2014  

Paedophilia in Australia, not just in the Churches, but trans-institutional, is one of the blackest stains on our national history and culture. Some of what has happened is so awful it is incredibly difficult for the average decent human being to get his or her head around. The Catholic Church, like most/all religious denominations, has not come out of this with its reputation enhanced. Inability to deal with the issue properly has lead to a couple of former Anglican Archbishops: Hollingworth of Brisbane and George of Adelaide resigning important state or church offices. Yet Hollingworth's successor, Phillip Aspinall, has been a wonderful and practical exemplar of how to deal with the issue both pastorally and practically. If there is an Australian gold standard in reaching out to people and dealing with the issue he has provided it. It would do the Catholic Church in Australia a world of good to harken to his example. Following or adapting the approach may save attempting to reinvent the wheel, as it were. The template already exists. Public breast beating may seem as insincere to the unchurched. Best fixing the Augean Stables and letting the general public judge you by your works.

Edward Fido | 17 August 2014  

The teachers did speak to the police and I know that as I am close relative of one of the teachers. Unfortunately the police at the time said they need to be double sure they had definite proof and it was quite obvious that friends in high places leaned on them to make the problem go away. Sad deputations of teachers and parents on multiple occasions were ignored reflects poorly on our society full stop

Susan R | 17 August 2014  

Those teachers who spoke on 4Corners did go to the police who could not act because parents did not make formal statements. What I believe needs to be examined is why the Church did not support parents in taking that step. I believe that Church personnel appear to be supporting parents of CSA victims but in effect dissuade them from formal reports by claiming to be concerned that the exposure will be harmful for their child. (Never mind the many other children left at risk as a result) The fact is that teachers showing concern for children are frozen out, ostracised and lose their careers and this is not just ancient history but there are recent cases as well. Those teachers have been through hell and it is unfair to be continuing their persecution.

Pam Krstic | 17 August 2014  

Neil my earlier response to you was a knee jerk reaction to your assuming the teachers did not go to the police. In fact I actually agree with much of what you have said about what is, in effect, a cultural problem within the Church that no amount of RC recommendations will change. The fact is that the laity have been taught for generations to take their cues from the leadership and the leadership is lacking. Parish education and the empowerment of the laity would be the way forward but when parishioners have been banned from meeting and talking about these matters as is currently the case in our parish, I can't see this happening.

Pam Krstic | 17 August 2014  

Mr Ormerod. By jumping to conclusions without checking facts, you have fallen into the pattern of deflecting responsibility for inaction away from the church onto the very people who acted with moral courage, some principals and teachers who frequently advised police of incidents of apparent abuse of children by priests. Police frequently investigated and took statements from victims, but later explained they were rendered lawfully unable to charge the perpetrator and proceed to court, once the priest pressured the parents not to press charges. This loophole in the law needs to be examined and changed so that children are not left vulnerable. In my further efforts to persuade the church to act to save those vulnerable children when the church would not act and the police could not act, I lost my career through pressure from others in the catholic system concerned to safeguard their careers by keeping things quiet. Other Melb/Vic.teachers have similarly lost careers over clergy sexual abuse as recently as 2006/7 and 2010/11. See Parliament of Victoria/fcdc/childabuse transcripts and submissions.

Carmel Rafferty | 17 August 2014  

In light of the comments above I clearly misjudged the situation and apologise to the teachers involved. I believe that the problem of co-dependence remains but their actions was not illustrative of this problem.

neil ormerod | 17 August 2014  

It's difficult to see how your penultimate sentence can be implemented when it is the congregations themselves that need healing due to such poor leadership. I expect this week's revelations to be as truly awful and shocking as the Ellis case.

Pam | 18 August 2014  

Neil, you are probably right, that there is “a 'co-dependency' issue here in that the laity look to the leadership to solve problems 'in-house'.” The reason for this lies in the autocratic governance of the Church through which the people of the Church have become used to exclusion from decision-making, and the hierarchy has acted primarily to protect the reputation of the institutional Church. The most serious allegation against the Church in the matter of child sexual abuse is even more serious than the fact that clerics abused innocent children. The real scandal is not only that Christ’s Church protected those clerics but that it often reassigned them to new parishes where they abused more children. Why? -because the Church has failed to be accountable, particularly through failing to engage the people of the Church in its decision-making, not to mention the even more serious discrimination against women. It is noteworthy that our children are leaving the Church in droves because they can see the hypocrisy in the behaviour of a Church claiming commitment to the teachings of Christ. It is time for the people of the Church to refuse to accept ‘co-dependency’ and to insist on a Christ-like Church.

Peter Johnstone | 18 August 2014  

Certainly it is helpful to have a secular authority in existence with the power to question a cardinal. This should not have been necessary if the church is an institution fully abreast of its obligations to those who have donated regularly of their time or via planned giving to its functioning i.e. the laity. Does church governance truly allow and foster lay participation? No. The current situation speaks of unbelievable systemic as well as personal failures - most particularly the personal failures of those who abuse. I find it extremely challenging to be told that I am somehow responsible for colluding with those who abuse. Does this mean I am also responsible for those who choose to murder? Do I thus share their guilt? The crux of the problem seems for me to lie in the power structures existing in the Church. These power structures have created a culture that has spawned the current crisis. I cannot help thinking Jesus Christ would not act in as cavalier a manner as some within the Church have done in the past. Teachers can only do so much if the main system involved will not support the reporting which has already occurred.

Maria | 18 August 2014  

What is a ''Christ-like Church", Peter Johnstone? You seem to believe it should be some sort of peoples' democracy and that it should admit women to priesthood (what I imagine you mean by "..the even more serious discrimination against women"). These are matters of clear distress to you. I suggest a reading of the Gospels of the New Testament may help since the Church Christ instituted is quite clearly described therein.

john frawley | 18 August 2014  

Neil you have really stirred me up today Many institutions today are corrupted and broken . If it were possible with the right leadership and philosophies they should clean out the ranks and start again . Remember when the early Christian communities banded together and spread the message of Jesus. Weren't The lay people instrumental in this building approach? I have always believed that the lay people are the church, in partnership with others Clericalism has prevented the lay from taking their rightful place as leaders . When an enlightened cleric or an informed lay person shares a view that is different, they are belittled , removed from office or simply ignored. Some of my spiritual development today does not come from " father" or the hierarchy but rather from some of those sisters of religious orders working in the world , from the young people who see it as it is ,and from writers and thinkers,and from the study of the word of God, The treatment of teachers in primary catholic schools has always been dictated by the power of their employer ,the priest in charge of the parish. This power means toeing the line. Don't blame the teachers for their inactivity in reporting their employer.

Celia | 18 August 2014  

There certainly is a co-dependency issue involved, though it is part of a much wider situation, and is partly due to the cultivation by the Church's Hierarchy over centuries of an exaggeration of the Church's role in God's Providence. Members of all organisations try to protect their invested interests, the Army, the Police, etc. Religions in general find a response to God's call, and tend to regard it as the only response, and it flatters its members to dismiss 'others' as mistaken or perverse, and we tend to defend our beliefs by any means, even when they are contrary to our basic creed, by persecuting and killing 'opponents.' We all need to realise that God is calling everyone by ways that suit them, even if they are different from ours. "We' are "special', but so are every one else, and 'our way' is just one way towards God. To exaggerate our position can be to worship a false 'god.'

Robert Liddy | 18 August 2014  

Good article with some unnecessary generalizations. It was not just the good name of the church which had to be protected, it was also the believer's need to turst in and invest in an afterlife as taught. If they lost faith in their structure they might lose their afterlife as well, as is often the case when people leave the church. Structures, power etc all part of the cult of co-dependency, of which also Jonestown is an example. And of course leaders buy into that dependency. My experience of bringing a complaint to the Jesuits, verified by Towards Healing, was that victims, teachers, parents and observers would not come forward as witnesses when asked to do so. The Royal Commission was wonderfully professional and supportive. They welcomed my submission on the systemic nature of the 'culture which concealed'.

Michael D. Breen | 18 August 2014  

Neil I am very pleased to read your apology to teachers. You are correct in your statement that you don't understand the situation. In almost every case the teachers were not able to take action without agreement from the school principle and bishop. To do otherwise is/was to be dismissed. Evidently you are unaware of these protocols that were in place in the Catholic School system. Are you aware they were in place in the Australian Catholic University too? The Catholic Church in Australia is into teacher compliance with the decision making left entirely to the principle and the bishop. Only since the Royal Commission has it become otherwise. Even so it isn't a straight forward process. You can easily discover this by reading the rules relating to disclosure of abuse to the police. Teachers are very wary as they are an easy target for the Catholic Church and Catholic Education Authorities.

Laurie Sheehan | 18 August 2014  

On 16th September at St Anthonys in the Fields Church Terrey Hills, Frenchs Forest Catholic Parish will be conducting its fourth annual gathering in solidarity with those who have been abused.

Brian Norman | 18 August 2014  

Thanks, Neil, for the stimulus of your article. And thanks to all who have responded so energetically for the sake of clarity and to supply missing information. I think that local congregations need to have this kind of conversation together to prepare them to offer themselves as safe places for people who experience any kind of abuse or discrimination. Making the congregation a safe place will heal us all, because it will require a change of culture among us towards confidence in speaking out and compassion as our response even when institutional arrangements forbid it.

alex nelson | 18 August 2014  

I wholeheartedly agree for the need for a parish community response to the sexual abuse scandal, for their own healing, as well as the healing of those directly affected by the abuse. Thanks for your comments, Neil

Corrie van den Bosch | 18 August 2014  

Not only was this an excellent article, which, if you disagreed with, it was more about one or two points, rather than the general trend, but also it attracted a uniformly high level of comment and discussion. I think that the fact that, these days, the subject can be discussed openly in a Catholic publication, is also a sign things have changed with Australian Catholics in the pews, who no longer subscribe to the "Father knows best" school of church governance, which seemed deeply ingrained in the Church hierarchy and amongst Church professionals i.e. priests, brothers and nuns. That was an extremely hierarchical Church. Robert Liddy and Michael Breen summed up the co-dependent and authoritarian nature of the organisation well and showed why, within such an authoritarian and highly secretive system, this abuse was able to happen and to go on happening. This sort of institution, I think, has little, if anything to do with Christianity as practiced by Jesus. It is a sad, nay, pathetic, parody of the Church he founded. Pell and Co., who operated within the authoritarian and co-dependent framework were part of the problem. The comments made by someone of the standing of Kristina Keneally about the system and the abuse were eye openers to me. I certainly think "Never again" should be our motto.

Edward Fido | 18 August 2014  

Carmel Rafferty, you're right - the loophole in the law did need closing, and, in fact, has been closed on the recommendation of the Victorian Inquiry. It's worth mentioning that this introduction of mandatory reporting by bishops has freed the bishops to respond more effectively. They are actually forbidden by canon law to report accusations against priests, unless this is demanded by the law of the land. (The Vatican doesn't want its bishops imprisoned). Today Archbishop Hart's actions against the accused Croatian priest demonstrate this.

Joan Seymour | 18 August 2014  

While we sit thinking of all the people who 'should have but did not' in this context, it is worth remembering that the wider community did not want such matters brought to their attention either. I remember Fred Nile back in the 90s asking questions in parliament along the lines of 'Is the parliament aware that in the city of XXX a child was sexually abused and the relevant authorities have done nothing about it?' For being public about such matters Fred received a lot of community backlash, some almost suggesting that he was some kind of pervert. It was a lone battle in those days, even for people outside the Catholic Church.

Kim Miller | 18 August 2014  

The fact that the teachers and community members did not approach the police is not surprising at all given the perceptions of power and control that people have of the Church. These powers had already been demonstrated by Archbishop Pell. Anyone who has been bullied knows how powerless one can feel . These assaults were far worse yet the highest authority in the Melbourne Catholic Church had disregarded them. The Doveton community was and still is quite disadvantaged and possibly had an innate distrust of the police. Raising the question as to why teachers did not go to the police almost seems like a form of victim blaming. The focus has to remain on the failures of the Church, not the perceived failures of the community.

Kate Sommerville | 19 August 2014  

Thought provoking as ever Neil. Might I posit an alternate rationale as to why parents, of young children particularly, might have been reluctant to approach police? I could well understand the reluctance of parents to subject young children to the legal processes involved with prosecution, evidence gathering and a subsequent trial. These are daunting processes for adult victims let alone children. I expect the first hope for the parents was to stop the abuse and so they looked to the Church authorities to act in this regard. In looking at the ways in which we as a whole community respond to abuse, we need to ensure that the legal processes open to all victims of abuse are accessible and supportive of those coming forward. Hopefully then people of all ages and backgrounds might feel greater confidence in reporting instances of abuse.

Marcelle | 19 August 2014  

John Frawley, a Christ-like Church is exactly that, a Church that follows Jesus’ Good News that it is required to proclaim. As to the “even more serious discrimination against women”, I refer to the simple fact that women are treated as inferior to men in the Church largely through the device of reserving to ordained men the real decision making roles, an effective means of exclusion. There is no doctrinal provision to prevent the pope appointing women as heads of the Curia dicasteries. Yes, I do also believe that the Church should admit women to priesthood and the Gospels do not preclude that nor endorse the exclusion of women from roles of leadership; the opposite is the case. You clearly fear an inclusive Church where the people of God are engaged by the bishops and assist their interpretation of revelation through an expression of the sensus fidelium. Vatican II and every pope since have supported the need for bishops to engage their people in this way. Unfortunately, our bishops seem to prefer an autocracy and show limited respect for revelation through the sensus fidelium. We should expect our Church leaders to be committed to a Christ-like Church in every way.

pj@pjgovernance.com.au | 19 August 2014  

When in Boston 2 years ago every Mass included one prayer of the faithful for victims and survivors of clerical abuse. This is a small but powerful way of entering the consciousness of church goers and paves the way for a more potent liturgy if lament. Perhaps parishes around Australia could begin this practice with those who attend church as a kin if warm up to other liturgical actions.

Elizabeth Hume | 21 August 2014  

As I am the principal that was interviewed on 4 Corners I need to put you all in the picture. It was not just the Church that did not believe or take notice of complaints about sexual abuse but the whole of society, Doctors Treating Professionals, Lawyers, Police. You had to deal with a culture that would not or did not want to believe that clergy could commit sexual abuse on young children and adults. I began trying to expose sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in 1969.At no stage would anyone believe me. Even when I resigned my position as Principal at Holy Family, where I held a high profile as an educationalist across the state, did nothing to motivate the Catholic Education Employees to investigate. I was just shunned and forced to loose my career. I had hard core evidence which I gave to the authorities but no one would act. Unless you have been down this path and sacrificed your career and your life for what is right it is hard for you all to understand how the system operates to protect its own and its standing in society. However the 4 Corners Programe has assisted more victims to come foreward. You have no idea how hard I worked to have someone take notice of the complaints and believe the evidence I had of clerical sexual abuse. Lastly none of you will ever understand the pain and suffering this stance I have taken has caused to my wife and my family. My own mother went to her grave not believing me and telling me to keep my mouth shut.

Graeme Sleeman | 25 August 2014  

I am a woman who sits by her weeping (literally) male partner and soul-mate (former teacher, consultant , school principal etc ...) each time these stories of abuse are publicly aired. I feel so deeply powerless in supporting the people betrayed by those purporting to uphold a faith and moral compass that is supposed to expressed unconditional love. To Graeme Sleeman - I salute you. The price paid for integrity can be very very high indeed (I know). I pray you now have the support you need ... if it helps you to know, your goodness and righteousness was shining through to us during your ABC interview. Bless you Graeme.

mary tehan | 26 August 2014  

I respond as a former teacher when I comment >While my response is hypothetical as I was not faced with this situation, I believe that some reasons for not reporting the matter would be; 1. Priests hold a lot of power and influence (or did so) ; 2. we would not be believed; 3. Our future employment would be a concern; 4. Own concept of our fellowship in the Church would be challenged. I am sure there are many other reasons too.

Gavin O'Brien | 01 September 2014  

I do have some idea what you are talking about Graeme, the ramifications and pain of exposure and searching for credibility from disbelievers, minimisers, and downright thwarters.

Jennifer Herrick | 09 September 2014  

The real problems are clericalism and sexual hypocrisy where the sinner is blamed. Unless catholic laity address these issues abuse will continue for example the excellent deputy principal of a parish school divorced from an abusive husband who will never be allowed to be principal due to clerical control of parish schools.

EurekaMichael | 20 March 2015  

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